Earthly Delights

Color, Line and Form: Abstraction in Metal, at Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts, is a duet featuring the sculptures of William Vielehr and Doug Wilson. Both have been creating abstract-expressionist sculpture for the last thirty years, but since their studios are in Boulder, they are less well-known in Denver than they should be.

The same is true for Jim Foster, who has been making abstract sculptures and prints in Colorado for decades but whose studio is north of Fort Collins, not far from the Wyoming border. His solo show, Jim Foster: Diversions -- Old & New, is currently showing at The Gallery @ Guiry's.

In the first show, Wilson's welded-steel sculptures have been handsomely arrayed across the floor at the Dairy Center while the walls have been lined with Vielehr's reliefs in bronze and aluminum; Vielehr also shows a freestanding piece. The gallery itself is accessed from the main entrance by proceeding up a ramp and then passing through a soaring anteroom. Plans for this voluminous space call for its conversion into a lobby for the center's theater facilities and gallery.

Wilson's sculptures vaguely suggest trees or driftwood or animal skeletons, but they are essentially non-objective. Using steel rods and plates, he typically sets a horizontal element on the floor -- a structural necessity -- that balances a soaring vertical spike.

"Arc Second #18A," from 1998, has been paired with the closely related "Arc Second #29," which was completed earlier this year. They have been placed opposite one another inside the gallery's entrance and together are evocative of a ceremonial gate. In both sculptures, Wilson has fanned out the steel rods on the floor, joining them at one end, and bent them into a nearly ninety-degree turn toward the ceiling. However, the resulting forms are not simple right angles, because the rods take a detour or two along the way, doubling back on themselves before rising in a graceful curve.

Some of Wilson's sculptures are painted, but most have been left in a natural state with a patina created by the scorching of the welding torch and the rust that Wilson has encouraged by leaving the pieces outside. Interestingly, even the painted ones have the same earth-tone palette as those that have been naturally patinated.

Wilson and Vielehr have frequently exhibited together since they became friends in the 1960s, when both were art students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The work of the old friends and colleagues is distinctly different, however. Wilson's pieces are suggestive of natural forms, while Vielehr uses abstract painting as his source of inspiration. Dozens of Vielehr's exquisite reliefs, all of them done in the last few years, have been hung densely on all four walls of the gallery. The connection to painting is manifested not just by the fact that the work is wall-hung, but also because Vielehr uses drawn lines, letters and numbers as well as multiple surface treatments, often in a variety of colors.

Vielehr begins with wax; lines and other graphic elements are created with steel tools used to gouge the pliable substance. He also uses a palette knife to work the wax when it is still soft, and in places layers the wax to produce texture. The piece is then cast in segments. The casting of the bronze or aluminum is done in the traditional lost-wax method, in which the wax master vaporizes when the molten metal hits it. The segments are then welded together to form the roughly rectangular shape that Vielehr prefers and that elegantly references the walls on which the sculptures hang.

A number of his pieces incorporate geometric forms. In "Ept," a 1998 bronze wall panel, Vielehr uses horizontal and vertical bars as well as a checkerboard motif. The letter X appears frequently, as in "Continued," from 1997, and the more recent "Drawn," from 1999, both of which are made of bronze. Each also features splashes of color, notably turquoise blue. The bronze itself, finished in a variety of ways -- from mirror-polished to etched to chemically patinated -- contributes its own array of colors.

Some of the sculptures, such as 1997's "Perplexed," one of the few monumental pieces included in the show, and the more intimate and lyrical "Nuevo," from 1998, are a combination of bronze and aluminum. There are also a handful of pieces done completely in aluminum that has been finished to a dull, silvery sheen. One of the aluminum pieces is 1998's "3-D Visual," which is a tabletop version of the wall-hung pieces.

To Vielehr, different geometric elements and colors are intended to refer to humanity. He has called some of these wall pieces "manscapes," linking the figure to the landscape but in a thoroughly abstract way.

In Jim Foster at The Gallery @ Guiry's, Foster, like Vielehr, looks to painting techniques in carrying out his bronze sculptures and creates abstractly while using representational or narrative elements.

Visitors enter the gallery through a door beyond the fine-art section of the store. Facing the entrance is the impressive, freestanding painted-bronze "Kiss," from 1991, which has been placed on a sculpture stand. For this piece, Foster formed a blobby organic shape to serve as a substantial base for a flat oval, which he has mounted on top; he finished each of the oval's sides with a different image. On the side facing the entrance, Foster divided the oval with diagonal lines and broad areas of color, both painted and patinated. On the other side is a line drawing of a couple kissing, done in a style that is more than a little School of Paris, á la Matisse or Chagall. The combination of minimal abstract compositions with simplified renderings of recognizable subjects is a signature that can be seen in many other Fosters in this show. But a few are purely abstract, and still others are completely representational.

Behind and to the right of "Kiss" is another, smaller bronze sculpture that is, confusingly, also named "Kiss." Despite the identical title, it is not a miniature version of the other "Kiss," but instead is a unique piece from 1990. In fact, all of the work in this show is one of a kind; Foster does not work in editions.

Complementing the bronzes are a group of the artist's monotypes. These ink-on-paper works were made on a gigantic monoprint press built by Foster himself. In 1999's "Spears," three curving color bars running parallel to one another have an instantaneous and gestural quality. In 1999's "Tulips," the flower is also quickly done in an expressionist style. In a sense, the monoprints are studies for the painted and inscribed elements seen on the sculptures.

It is a surprise, since Foster is best known as a ceramic artist, that this show doesn't include any ceramics (though three wall plaques are stored in the back room).

Foster, who has maintained a Colorado studio since 1974, rarely exhibits his work in the area, which makes Jim Foster an unusual opportunity to see the efforts of a notable northern Colorado artist.

Believe it or not, there is a strange connection between Harvest: landscapes from the heartland, which runs through the holidays at the William Havu Gallery and is essentially about contemporary landscape painting, and the abstract pieces in Color, Line and Form and Jim Foster. But the coincidental relationship is made just outside the front door, and not in the show itself.

Installed on either side of the main entrance to the Havu gallery are two large sculptures by Jerry Wingren. As it happens, Wingren is an abstract sculptor working in Boulder, and he's been in his studio for decades. But unlike those other longtime hinterlanders -- Vielehr, Wilson and Foster -- Wingren is widely known in Denver, since he exhibits frequently around the area, most recently in Colorado Abstraction, an important show at the Arvada Center that closed last month. In fact, "Tacoma Ovoid # 2," from 1998-1999, which is now at Havu's, was previously installed outside the main entrance to the Arvada Center.

Harvest, which is a group show, begins inside the gallery, though many paintings can be seen from the sidewalk through Havu's large display windows.

On the left are multimedia abstracts by Ron Pokrasso that incorporate trees. Pokrasso was born in New York and earned his MFA at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In the 1970s he visited Santa Fe, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that he became a part of the art scene there. In 1993 he took over as the master printer at the Printmaking Center at the College of Santa Fe, a post he retains to this day.

Several of his characteristic monotypes, which he alters after printing by adding paint, drawing and collage elements, are on display in Harvest. So are a number of mixed-media paintings that do not include printed parts. Three of these, "One Tree," "Two Tree" and "Three Tree," all from 1999, are hung together around the corner to the left of the front door. All three are basically the same. On a painterly abstract-expressionist ground done in light colors, loosely painted silhouettes of trees float in space across the center. The strong image of the bare trees suggests the graphic character of prints, and this connects Pokrasso's paintings to his more typical works on paper.

This group is hung on the north end of the two-story central room, but most of this space is devoted to the second artist featured in Harvest, Stephen Dinsmore. A Minnesota painter, Dinsmore maintains ties to his home state of Nebraska, and it was in Kearney, at the Museum of Nebraska Art, that gallery director Bill Havu examined many of the Dinsmore paintings that are included in the show. Although Havu has known Dinsmore's work for a long time and has sold small pieces of his over the years, this is the first time he has presented Dinsmore in any depth, and it's the first time he's had major paintings to exhibit.

The name of the show is taken from one of these important paintings. "Harvest," an oil on canvas from 1999, shows a tree-studded flatland under a heavy and churning sky in pink, yellow and white. Dinsmore's painting style is traditional and recalls the impressionist landscapes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More expressionist is another substantial oil on canvas, "Dakota," from 1996, in which a row of trees, one in a dazzling orange, stand in a line in front of purple hills under a Wedgwood-blue sky.

Other Dinsmore paintings are more abstract; in palette and in terms of the composition, they recall the work of the figural abstractionists of the 1950s and '60s. That abstract quality is clearly seen in "Still Life in Landscape #3," an oil on canvas from 1999 that hangs adjacent to "Dakota." Both are in the niche created by the gallery's front windows and can be seen from outside.

Upstairs on the mezzanine loft is the work of two other artists, Judith Lightfield and Anna Mastronardi, but this section is considerably more abbreviated than the downstairs one, with only a handful of pieces.

Lightfield is the only artist in the show who is from Denver. Her work here concerns the luminous sky, a longtime interest for her. In "October 27th," a 1998 acrylic on canvas, a tree stands on one side in the foreground, and glimpsed to the other side are the indefinite hills and smeary sky of the background.

Mastronardi is a Seattle artist who recalls the countryside of her childhood in Italy in elaborate and meticulous Prismacolor pencil drawings. Though she was born in Italy, Mastronardi moved to the United States as a child, which explains the storybook character of her romanticized scenes.

All of the artists in Harvest reveal in their paintings and works on paper the unlikely but continuing appeal of traditional landscape painting.

Over at the Saks Galleries in Cherry Creek, it's the figural tradition that gets a contemporary workout in Patti Cramer: New Faces...New Places, which runs through tomorrow. The show looks gorgeous in the fancy Saks; Cramer's work is a good fit here.

As usual, Cramer captures a chic urban world filled with fashionably dressed people involved with one another and with their cute dogs. In her signature expressionist style, she models her compositions on Renaissance prototypes, in which the life of the street came together to convey a narrative.

Abstracts, still lifes, landscapes and figure paintings are all alive and well, and here it is, the end of the 1900s.

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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