Formal Wares

The five artists featured in the current exhibit at Auraria's Emmanuel Gallery, Elemental, don't constitute a school. Neither are they working in the same style or even in the same media. Yet brought together, pieces by Jeff Starr, Dean Habegger, Frank Shaw, Rodger Lang and Scott Chamberlin produce a consistent and unified display that provides fresh insights for the viewer.

What links these artists is their reliance on what exhibition organizer and gallery director Carol Keller calls "other forms." The shapes to which Keller is referring--she has written that they "seem to emerge from the soul of the artist"--are simple and organic. Some of the forms are anthropomorphic, while others are more broadly biomorphic, suggesting the outlines of living organisms. Keller's claim that these organic elements emanate from the unconscious realm is a hard pill to swallow when one recalls the more than fifty-year history of biomorphism in American painting and sculpture. Instead, the artists' enigmatic images appear to come from nature, recalling twigs, bones, heads and figures.

For the Emmanuel exhibit, widely known Denver painter Jeff Starr has reprised some of the work he displayed earlier this year in a solo show at the Rule Gallery. These paintings, which feature abstract objects set in landscape or still-life settings, represent just one of the several artistic directions Starr has explored over the last few years. He begins by creating sculptures of the abstract forms (which he sometimes exhibits alongside the paintings), and then uses them as models. He places the chosen objects in the foregrounds of his paintings and depicts them with precision. Thus, though the forms themselves are abstractions, he doesn't use abstract techniques to create them, instead relying on the methods used by representational painters.

In the large oil on canvas "Sphinx," the central form recalls a rider mounted on a horse that is crossing a sunlit plain. The golden ochers of the "horse and rider" aren't too different from the color of the plain, but Starr's careful handling of the shadows and the play of light allows the object to stand out against the background anyway. Even more clearly delineated from its surroundings is the abstract form that fills the picture plane of "Otis," an easel-sized oil on canvas. Here the element is reminiscent of a seated female figure a la Picasso. The figure is placed on a gridded floor before walls that have been colored a beautiful, striated yellow-green.

The Dean Habegger paintings in Elemental are also precisely detailed, though his subjects are more readily distinguishable than Starr's. Habegger's principal visual devices are twigs and the branches of trees, seen in closeup. These mostly small paintings, some of which have been elaborately framed, are Habegger's more refined followup to the large, multipanel compositions that made such a big splash last fall when he unveiled them in his single-artist show at Core New Art Space.

Habegger obviously has been influenced by Montana's John Buck, whose prints and sculptures are familiar to local viewers owing to his frequent exhibits in the region. Habegger's use of tree forms against densely patterned backgrounds relates these paintings to Buck's large-format woodcuts. But Habegger's works are noticeably simpler in their design, and his colors are more bold and saturated. And though his wonderful paintings appear to be laden with narrative content, it's hard to decipher the stories they tell. In "Split," an acrylic on wood, the picture has been conceived as a diptych, but it isn't; it's on a single panel. On the left side, a thick log with severed limbs is set against a checkerboard field of red, yellow and blue-green. On the right, a thin twig with a cord wrapped around it is placed on a yellow-green field. The left side has been crisply painted, the right side left smudgy and atmospheric.

One of the genuine revelations of Elemental is the strong work by Frank Shaw, who plays the role of the young upstart surrounded by established talents. Shaw displays both paintings and sculptures. In his paintings, he takes an abstract approach, placing simplified forms against painterly grounds. In the mammoth oil on canvas "Untitled," a dark, meandering line evocative of a bone swims in a murky brown sea of paint. The paint has been thinly applied, like a veil. Shaw has apparently rubbed the surface of the canvas to blend the various dark shades and create the color he uses for the ground.

The abstracted form of a bone is also seen in many of Shaw's sculptures, such as "Muscular Study Fragment," a scabrous linear form made of bronze on steel legs and base. Shaw again combines steel and bronze in the wall-mounted sculpture "OTwoXThree," which includes three identical bone shapes, each set on its own individual shelf.

Given the high standard of ceramics in the Rocky Mountain region, it's not surprising to find the standouts in this strong show contributed by artists who work in clay--especially when the artists in question are nationally known figures like Rodger Lang and Scott Chamberlin.

Lang has created abstract sculptures in his signature kiln-fired clay, as well as some similar expressions executed in beautifully patinated bronze. With "Domed Pyrolith," Lang has fashioned a small but weighty-looking clay sculpture. On a thick circular base with a bull-nosed edge is a rounded form composed of three parts--the shaft, the dome and the finial cap; the three elements are unified by surfaces finished with triangular ridges. The piece is stained to a dull, whitish gunmetal finish, which gets thicker where it's caught in the rough surface of the clay. It all resembles a postmodern Jell-O mold.

Clay is the material that made Lang's reputation, but "Domed Pyrolith" and other works are nonetheless very complimentary to his bronzes, which are also a great success. Especially fine are "Coiled Guardian" and its companion in the show, "Draped Guardian." Both are made up of a thick, clunky base on which sits a larger and lighter-colored coiled dome.

Like Lang, Chamberlin is chiefly known for his ceramic sculpture, but he has also long created gorgeous abstract drawings. Examples of both are included here. Though relatively small, Chamberlin's recent wall-hung glazed ceramic sculptures have a monumental quality that is further enhanced by the careful way director Keller has presented them. This is especially true of "Ered" and "Cinnin," which are hung alone on the gallery's large back wall. Both of these reliefs look like animal trophy heads, an effect heightened by the fact that they are hung at eye level. In "Ered," which has been glazed a gorgeous army green, Chamberlin has assembled three thrown and altered clay forms. One of them looks like a stuffed rabbit's head with its ears hanging limply down. It sounds cutesy, but it's actually quite unnerving.

An interesting feature of these pieces is the way Chamberlin refers to the pull of gravity. "Ered" and "Cinnin" seem to droop, which reminds us that the now rigid clay was once fairly fluid. This is a relatively new interest for Chamberlin, whose earlier wall reliefs were always firmly and solidly formed.

Chamberlin's exquisite powdered-pigment drawings incorporate organic shapes that may be human or animal heads--just as in the wall-hung sculptures. But they're profoundly different in style. The artist's confident drawing and his skill at creating densely colored abstract-expressionist grounds are an art world away from his spare monochrome ceramics.

That Carol Keller was able to pull together paintings, sculptures and drawings from five unrelated artists and turn them into a coherent show like Elemental is no small feat. But such efforts come naturally to her--there's almost always a good show at Emmanuel. In the past, however, exhibits were often hard to see because of the gallery's inadequate lighting. Happily, that problem has now been corrected by the installation of new track lights mounted on a frame hung from the ceiling.

Emmanuel isn't the only place that's brighter these days. The hard workers over at Pirate also have been looking up: They've painted their ceiling, which has greatly improved the play of light in the room.

The floor and the walls at Pirate have also recently received a new coat or two, and the whole place now glows, providing the perfect background for an exhibit in the main gallery titled bash, waste, and obfuscate. The show consists of eight large abstract paintings by Cameron Jones and represents a great leap forward for the twenty-something self-taught artist. And they're obviously fresh off the easel--I was almost knocked over by the smell of wet paint and linseed oil.

These paintings are all closely related to one another; Jones says she worked on many of them at the same time, and the result is a high level of consistency--and energy. Jones has painted and repainted these pieces, sometimes changing them considerably in the process. "Soldier," an oil on canvas that was used on the invitations sent out for the exhibit, has been so thoroughly reworked that it now constitutes an entirely new painting.

In each piece, Jones has chosen a detail of a famous artist's work as her taking-off point. Borrowing mostly from paintings by Italian masters such as Tintoretto, Giotto and Paolo Uccello, Jones chooses details pre-selected by the editors of art history books but makes the images her own. Indeed, by the time she's finished, the portions of the classic paintings are unrecognizable. One of the best examples is the oil on canvas "Whore," which, according to Jones, was inspired by Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the famous scene of prostitutes from 1907 that many see as the starting gun of modernism.

Jones says her latest series marks a new beginning. "I feel as though I've begun the work of my life," she says. That may be too bold a claim, but bash, waste, and obfuscate is a pretty good start--and miles ahead of where Jones was just a year ago.

Elemental, through September 19 at the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria campus, 556-8337.

bash, waste and obfuscate, through September 15 at Pirate, 3659 Navajo Street, 458-6058.

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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