Early Thaw

In the anything-goes art world of the last couple of decades, contemporary art has fractured into innumerable stylistic tendencies. Contemporary artists are creating everything from conceptual installations, videos and performances to neo-traditional paintings and sculptures.

Considering this stylistic anarchy, it's interesting when a trend can be perceived. Apparently, one of the currents in the air right now is the creation of abstracts derived from forms found in the natural world.

This kind of work is hardly new, but it's experiencing a big-time revival. Roots of the approach extend back a century, to the beginnings of abstraction -- notably, the early cubist work of Braque. But during the era of classic American modernism -- from the 1950s to the 1970s, when abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism ruled -- nature-based art seemed naive, if not downright backward. That changed in the '80s, with the rise of neo-expressionism, and really picked up in the '90s.

The wide variety of offerings currently on display demonstrates the renewed importance of this kind of work. Among the best is Robischon Gallery's Luminous Nature, which contrasts pieces by Trine Bumiller, Rosalyn Schwartz and Kathy Moss. Gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran organized the exhibit, and, as usual, Doran arranged it so that each artist is given a separate room (or two, in Moss's case).

The show begins in the entry gallery with a selection of recent paintings by Bumiller. Robischon's commitment to the well-known Denver painter began in the late '80s, and the gallery has shown her work almost every year since. These latest pieces, which have generated a lot of positive word of mouth around town, mark a shift in the artist's work. Bumiller has long assembled separately painted panels in order to create a single work. In the past, she would either line up the panels horizontally or stack them vertically; either way, the resulting form would be rectangular. For Luminous Nature, however, Bumiller has arranged the panels so that they form elaborate geometric configurations, and while they are still rectilinear, they are no longer simple rectangles.

Bumiller premiered this approach late last year in a public-art piece installed in the Engineering Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The multi-part painting, titled "River Story," hangs in the corridor outside the Environmental Engineering Laboratories. It is made up of six narrow, horizontal panels that meander like a river along the wall. Taken together, the panels measure 36 feet in length. By arranging them in unexpected ways, Bumiller added a sculptural element that's not there in the strictly rectangular paintings. In a sense, that makes "River Story" an installation, which is also the case with the paintings at Robischon: They could actually be described as painted, wall-hung installations. (Along with the craze for nature-based abstraction, contemporary artists are also going wild for this sculptural approach of installing multiple panels to form a single painting.)

In other ways, though, these recent pieces are clearly Bumiller in style and technique. There are the naturalistic shapes she prefers, which variously suggest roots, branches, rivers, water, clouds and stars. Then, of course, there's her chosen palette of muted earth tones, applied in transparent layers on a rigidly flat surface.

Facing us as we enter the gallery is "Wintercount," an oil on canvas comprising three separate panels in which icy blues, whites and grays dominate. Bumiller has arranged the piece so that a narrow, horizontal central panel links a pair of square ones that bracket it asymmetrically. The center panel connects the side of the left panel to the bottom of the right one so that the painting seems to step up and down and up again across the wall; in the process, it occupies more visual space than a traditional rectangular painting would. The two squares are covered in lines and shapes evocative of bare branches; on the horizontal part, there's a serpentine line that suggests a river seen from above. (It's the same kind of line seen in all six panels of "River Story.")

To the left is "Gene Pool," another three-part oil on canvas that's closely related to "Wintercount." A large square canvas painted dusty blue has been placed in the center, with a smaller square painted on the left and a vertically oriented rectangle on the right; the flanking panels are done in brown on creamy white. The abstract shapes suggest leaves, water and twigs, but the title indicates that microscopic life -- whose forms evoke similar imagery -- is actually Bumiller's subject.

In the adjacent front gallery are atmospheric abstract paintings by Rosalyn Schwartz. Based in Illinois, Schwartz is brand-new to Robischon. These paintings, done over the last few years, combine luxurious, multi-level color fields with linear patterns. However, the symmetrical patterns are organic rather than geometric. They're reminiscent of flowering and fruiting vines, as in "Forgiving Darkness IV," or of decorative art -- like wrought-iron work -- that's based on vines, as in "Untitled," or even, in the case of "Thalo I," a chandelier, complete with illuminated lightbulbs. This relationship to decorative art is no accident; Schwartz's paintings are unapologetically decorative.

The other key characteristic of these paintings is that the color fields are constructed with veils of paint, which makes the organic patterns seem to float among layers of paint and glaze. Sometimes Schwartz pours the final coats of it down the front of the paintings, and the runs and drips dry right in place. This effect is most pronounced in "White 2," which, despite its title, is almost entirely red -- several vivid shades of red, to be exact. The "White" refers to the clear glaze that runs down the front, although it looks pink when seen against all that red.

"White 2" is the best of the five impressive Schwartz paintings in the show.

The last of the three artists is New York's Kathy Moss. Her paintings, in oil on linen, sport color fields that are mostly dingy whites encased in thick yellowed glazes. The paint and the glazes are so heavily applied that they are raised up here and there in running streams that flow down the canvases. On these fields, Moss has placed expressively painted forms that resemble trees and shrubs -- but also Rorschach tests -- done in very dark shades of blues and greens that read like black or very dark brown. The work has a minimalist quality without being minimalist and an expressionist one without being expressionist. The dark forms against the light grounds are iconic but pointedly non-decorative, which simultaneously connects Moss to, and distinguishes her from, Bumiller and Schwartz.

Another example of the widespread interest in nature among contemporary artists can be found in Bloom, at Carson-Masuoka Gallery. This show, organized by gallery director Mark Masuoka, combines the work of three Colorado artists: Dawn Wilde, Lorelei Schott and Kimberlee Sullivan.

Bloom begins with four fairly representational paintings from Wilde's "Cloud" series. But by hanging them in a two-by-two grid in which the views of clouds in the ones above are clearly not continuations of the ones below but rather wholly separate vistas, Wilde takes apart the representational element.

This abstract effect is maintained even when Wilde uses more or less naturalistic colors, as in "Clouds: Yellow," in which the sky is carried out in purple and gold, or in "Clouds V: Sundown," in pink, white and -- what else? -- sky blue.

Wilde lives in Manitou Springs and has taught at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs since the late '80s. She's been exhibiting at Carson-Masuoka since 1990, when it was called the Sandy Carson Gallery.

Schott, who lives in Boulder, is another of the gallery's veteran artists, dating back to 1991.

She used an interesting process to create her mixed-media paintings. First she placed rusting objects on the canvases and buried them underground to produce a patina made by the dirt and rust. Seeing the process as a kind of alchemy, Schott also used water to accelerate the desired staining. The canvases were dug up later, then taken back to her studio and collaged onto other stretched canvases. Finally, Schott drew and painted on the canvases. The pieces at Carson-Masuoka are decorated with delicate views of insects and sea life that were inspired by Sibly's Natural History, a Victorian-era scientific volume Schott owns.

The work is extremely subtle and features the kind of muted brown, rust-red and tan colors that could be expected, given the transfer-by-entombment technique. The drawings of the insects and sea creatures are precise but vaporous because they're so light, thin and fine.

The last artist is Sullivan. Though this is her Carson-Masuoka debut, her work has been seen elsewhere around town, particularly at Edge Gallery. (Sullivan is part of an army of talent that Masuoka has picked up since partnering with Sandy Carson a little more than a year ago; other additions include Homare Ikeda, Virginia Folkestad, Debra Goldman, Gwen Laine and John McEnroe. Examples of work by some of these artists can be seen in the gallery's back conference room.)

Like Wilde's pieces, Sullivan's are about the sky. And also like Wilde's, they take on an abstract quality because of the way they are assembled in multiple panels. Individually, the panels are more or less representational, but the arrangement prevents them from being read as purely realistic. A good example is "Cloudlet Series," a set of seven exaggeratedly horizontal views of clouds that have been scattered over two walls in an irregular grid arrangement.

These similarities aside, there are many differences between Wilde and Sullivan, especially their dramatically divergent approaches to surface treatments. Wilde's surfaces are flat and her colors finely blended, whereas Sullivan's surfaces are covered with heavily built-up paint that's even been scuffed or rubbed off in places.

Some of Sullivan's pieces concern natural topics other than clouds, including one large fifteen-part painting of autumn leaves and a pair of multi-panel paintings of rivers. The little, copper-colored square panels across the top of the river paintings are neat but lack integration with the rest of the pieces, and so ultimately don't work.

Though looking to nature for inspiration seems very old-fashioned to me, it's fascinating that the artists in Luminous Nature, Bloom and other shows around town -- and around the country -- are so hard at work keeping it up to the minute, thus ensuring that an interest in nature remains credibly contemporary.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia