Fresh Heirs

The world of contemporary art has seen some bad days in the 1990s.
It all started when an economic slump brought the art boom of the 1980s to a crashing halt in New York City, the epicenter of the global market. The severity of the resulting freefall is illustrated by this current joke: Manhattan's gallery central, SoHo, is now NoMo. Compounding the crisis is the fact that, just as the market has tightened, older modern art--the work of the early- to mid-twentieth century--has re-emerged and has been widely embraced, displacing contemporary art in the hearts of many collectors and on the exhibition schedules of many galleries. In the 1980s, a painting done just a year before was seen as old hat, but in the '90s, age brings cachet. And since the art market is only one pie, the bigger the piece dedicated to vintage art, the smaller the piece for current material.

These are just two of the reasons that it seems as if the 1990s has no new generation of artists to call its own--a style vacuum just as easily detected in Denver as anywhere else. Want proof? Compare and contrast the current local climate with the scene here in the 1980s. Ten years ago it seemed that a new crop of artists popped up every time you turned around. Now established names dominate (many of them former '80s wunderkinds) and new faces rarely appear. Instead of a score of artists coming on full-bore--as used to happen every six months at the Pirate and Edge co-ops--there's now only the occasional emergence of an art star.

But there are signs that the creative ice jam may be beginning to break--and none too soon. This summer, newish names are well on their way to becoming established ones. And there's no better place to get acquainted with three of the most promising of them than at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery's The Third Degree: 3 Investigations in Abstraction. Gallery director Robin Rule has organized a theme show featuring abstract painters Christina Snouffer, Bruce Price and Sean Hughes.

The 27-year-old Snouffer, who was born in San Diego, has been exhibiting locally only for the last couple of years. But you wouldn't know it to look at her mature and accomplished mixed-media paintings, which appear to be the work of an old pro. Her eight paintings in the Rule show--some of them multi-panel pieces--are all quietly elegant and seamlessly unified. They share her preferred palette (shades that range from charcoal to browns and dark grayish-greens), along with her interest in industrial design and architecture.

Snouffer says her attachment to a somber array of rainy-day shades stems from her experiences in Japan, where she lived as an exchange student for many years, both during high school and later as a student at the Stanford University Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. And the subdued colors are the perfect complement to her fascination with the urban landscape. "The subject of my paintings is the undercurrent of pattern and texture of the buildings in the city," she says. "The overlooked things, like a rusted fire escape in an alley. The things which seem meaningless are meaningful to me."

Those interests are clearly expressed in the marvelous paintings that hang on the south wall of the main room at Rule. Each has a geometric grid laid over scabrous paint that's suggestive of rust or other decayed surfaces. The effects achieved with the paint are based on actual details of the real world; in fact, Snouffer found inspiration in photo enlargements of the sides of dumpsters or the faces of doors. These color pictures, which record the scuffs and scratches in the industrially painted metal, are oddly beautiful. Much more than preparatory pieces to the paintings, they're worthy of being exhibited on their own.

Whereas the photos are flat and glossy, Snouffer's paintings feature a three-dimensional pattern pushed into the thick paint. The artist accomplishes this by dragging plastic trowels--some of which she custom-made herself--through the paint while it's still wet. A good example of what can result from this unorthodox technique is a mixed media and encaustic on wood titled "In the Form of a Question." The entire surface of the painting is covered with parallel grooves.

At first sight, it looks as though Bruce Price is doing the same thing as Snouffer--contrasting geometric patterns with expressionist content. But though Price and Snouffer have backgrounds in minimalism and conceptualism in common, Price adds a dash of postmodernism, calling his work "immediate, spontaneous and local." Price also looks to the abstract expressionists, even though his approach is decidedly different. Whereas the abstract expressionists sometimes literally threw paint at the canvas, Price lays on his pigments with an almost scientific precision. And while Snouffer flatly declares that she's "not interested in making pretty pictures," Price says "art is about making things pretty"--and he's being only somewhat ironic. Adds the artist by way of clarification, "Make that beautiful, not pretty."

The 38-year-old Price was born in rural Indiana and attended Richland College in Dallas before coming to Denver in 1995. He's a 1997 graduate of Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he was the protege of legendary geometric abstractionist Clark Richert, who describes Price as "one of the first students that [RMCAD] has produced to have the potential to make a major contribution to contemporary art." Coming from the matter-of-fact Richert, that's hardly faint praise.

And judging from the nine paintings exhibited in Rule's intimate back gallery, there's no denying Price's talent. He tries to pull off what he calls "the marriage of structure and sensuality," an effort that starts with the traditional geometric shape of his canvases--rectangles and squares--and is carried through by his inspired use of color.

This duality of approach creates a kind of tight expressionism, as oxymoronic as that may sound. And the combination works to good effect in "Cathedral," an acrylic on canvas in which Price has placed a sickly yellow-green rectangle over a brown square. The boundary between the two colors and the shape of the canvas itself create rigid horizontals and verticals, but the color fields are streaked and striated. It's an inviting pairing: hard edges around soft in-fill. And it's only one of the pairings that are central to Price's approach; among the others is a device that Price says relates male imagery to female imagery, in which straight, masculine lines are set against delicately feminine color fields. "I am gay, but I do not consider myself a 'gay artist,' and my work is not politically about being gay," says Price. "However, being gay, which I see as a combination of male and female, is part of the personal content of my work."

Gender issues also play a part in the work of the third and by far best-known artist in the Rule show, Sean Hughes. "I am personally influenced by being gay, but my work is not political," says Hughes. "It is about manliness, which is neither straight nor gay, just simply manly." In each of his paintings that line Rule's north wall, Hughes lays down an abstract-expressionist ground and then adds crudely painted drawings of ordinary objects. So what's so manly about that? Well, in art lore, at least, the first generation of abstract expressionists were known as bar-brawling macho morons. And as for the ordinary objects in the paintings, they include guns, flags and underwear.

The 27-year-old Hughes was born in Fruita, studied printmaking at Mesa State College in Grand Junction and received his BFA from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1996. His current day job is at the Denver Art Museum, where he serves as an assistant in the collections department. "Being exposed to so much art in my job at the museum--everything from Chinese ceramics to old masters to contemporary art, and even the design items that pass through the collections department--has really influenced my paintings," Hughes says. He points to Philip Guston's paintings and prints of the 1970s as a particularly significant influence, and their subliminal role is easy to detect in the paintings at Rule. In the superb acrylic and enamel on canvas "Untitled," Hughes first places a gorgeous and smeary abstract-expressionist ground in gray, white and various shades of ocher. On top he adds an awkward, sideways line drawing of a red gun--very much in the manner of Guston.

The thoughtful and accomplished paintings by Snouffer, Price and Hughes may not herald a renewed contemporary scene in the nick of time for the 21st century. But it couldn't hurt to hope so.

The Third Degree: 3 Investigations in Abstraction, through August 31 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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