Flash Point

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If the front space is devoted to abstraction, dominated by the Criss Cross crowd, the back gallery is mostly focused on the various representational styles embraced by other founding members of Spark. The two paintings by Gillis straddle the two rooms and lead viewers from the front to the back. This is appropriate because Gillis may be loosely linked to both camps. Like the Criss Cross artists, Gillis prefers hard edges, but like his other friends, inserts recognizable things into his paintings.

In "Untitled," a 1979 oil on board, Gillis sets a white figure holding cards in the foreground against a background in tan and various shades of blue and black. The painting is crowded with geometric shapes, in particular triangles, and with thick diagonal lines. In the newer Gillis, a 1999 oil on linen that is also untitled, cartoonish animals in human poses in the front of the picture glance warily back at a creature emerging from the water. A loosely painted grid is a key element of the background.

The imagery Gillis chooses has a disturbing quality, which is also something of a specialty for Neumann, once called the "grandmother of the new wave" because she was among the first local artists to embrace neo-expressionism. Much of what would later be seen in the 1980s was anticipated by Neumann pieces such as 1979's "Gorilla Graffiti," an oil, oil pastel and glitter on paper. Her more recent "Mnemnoe," an oil on canvas from a few years ago (but incorrectly dated 1999), is typical of her later work, with its dark and murky palette and its crude details. Both pieces have been clearly divided into top and bottom, showcasing Newmann's interest in difficult and awkward compositions.

Neumann's style is closest to that of Suzy Roesler. Four of Roesler's pieces have been included, serving as an ad hoc memorial. Roesler, the longtime force behind the Artists Registry, died on May 24 after a brief bout with cancer.

John Fudge is another artist, like Neumann, who was widely influential on younger artists in the Denver scene. But his style is distinctly different from Neumann's. Whereas Neumann's subjects are highly abstracted and expressively painted, Fudge takes an almost photographic approach, using smooth crisp brushwork to create his neo-surrealist compositions. A piece like Fudge's "2001-A Shoe Oddity," a 1977 oil on canvas that depicts a high-heel shoe in outer space, provided the example for an entire generation of young neo-surrealists here in town. Fudge's 1994 "Bob and Teenager Connie in Tibet," an acrylic on canvas, has the accurately rendered travelers bathed in spooky darkness. Unlikely juxtapositions and the aura of mystery, or even doom, first seen in Fudge's work became a leitmotif of the 1980s for a score of artists.

Marilyn Duke takes an entirely different tactic from any of the other early Spark members. Her early pieces, as well as her most recent efforts, are part of the hyper-realist movement, which included photo-realism. In 1979's "White Stage," a chalk and pastel on paper, Duke records a landscape of flowers with a rabbit in the foreground and mountain and sky in the background. Every square inch of the drawing is crammed with carefully filled-in details. This precise approach is also seen in her just-completed "A View of Denver," which envisions the city as being replaced by the pristine high plains on which it was built.

Twentieth Anniversary Celebration is an auspicious event. The intelligent, if crammed, show doesn't just provide a history lesson; it makes a vital contribution, because the ideas that spawned Spark are still relevant to current events.

Twentieth Anniversary Celebration, through August 1, at the Spark Gallery, 1535 Platte Street, 303-455-4435.

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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