Grooving to the Oldies

I think it was triggered back in the 1990s, as people looked ahead to the new millennium. When the 21st century dawned, everyone everywhere and in every field of human endeavor seemed to look to the past to chart the course of the future. This retrospective mood constituted a major shift in attitude for our new-is-always-better culture. Now the newest of the new is likely to be something that's based not on innovation, but on a fresh re-evaluation of the familiar.

The continuing and growing effect of this change in mindset is visible everywhere, particularly in the arts. Revivals and plays based on earlier sources dominate the Broadway stage. Remakes and retools of old movies attract big audiences -- and big awards. Many of the latest car designs reference the great-looking coupes and roadsters of the '50s and '60s, and much of today's wild, over-the-top furniture recalls that same visually rich period.

Looking in the rear-view mirror appears to be as cutting-edge as looking ahead.

The Denver art world is currently offering several first-rate examples of this new focus on the old. Among the best of the heady bunch is Duality/Autonomy, an exhibit with a decidedly '60s air to it. Smartly installed in the University of Denver's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building, the show pairs recent paintings by Denver's Clark Richert with installations by New York's Devorah Sperber.

Duality/Autonomy is unusual and imaginative, deftly confronting the title's contradiction. Show organizer, DU professor and painter Jeffrey Keith divided the Myhren space in half with a freestanding temporary wall in order to present the ostensible duet as a pair of complementary solos -- a decision that was right on target.

Because of the obvious differences between Richert's and Sperber's work, Keith penned an essay pointing out some of their conceptual and stylistic affinities -- the most obvious being their shared interest in patterns.

Richert has worked with patterns for nearly forty years, but the paintings debuted in this show indicate an ideological change for the highly regarded artist. "It's so exciting to see an accomplished artist like Clark doing this kind of breakout work," Keith says, and I couldn't agree more.

Long interested in mathematics, Richert has always relied on grids and their rational regularity to organize his compositions, using them to convey either flatness or three-dimensionality. But in these latest paintings, he's added something different, something irrational -- the idea of randomness. Of course, we're talking about Richert, so it's to be expected that his randomness has been methodically calculated using complicated equations. The preliminary studies for the paintings were created on a computer, resulting in several blue backgrounds that evoke monitor screens.

In "64 Algorithms," a grid forms the outline of a cube that's subdivided into 64 smaller cubes. The grid defines the three-dimensional space falling behind the picture plane, the surface of which is defined by a legend of geometric shapes -- a device Richert often employs. Contained within the cube are multicolored wavy lines that create non-repeating patterns. But Richert introduces repetition anyway by lining up identical copies of the same pattern. In "Turbulence Machine," sinuous rainbow-hued lines float out in front of a light-blue graph-paper grid set at an angle, establishing the illusion of three dimensions on the dark-blue canvas.

The most radical Richert paintings are those that are essentially, if not completely, flat, such as "Snelsonian Motion" and -- even more so -- "R-P Motion," both of which represent a return to his earlier work. Richert has been abstractly illustrating imaginary three-dimensional spaces only since the 1980s; during the '60s and '70s, his paintings were utterly flat. Clearly, this revival of interest in flat patterns -- a hallmark of '60s abstract painting -- helps define the show's retro mood.

Helping even more are Sperber's subjects (bikinis, bandannas and a VW bus), which make up the other half of Duality/Autonomy. For the installation "VW Bus: Shower Power," Sperber conjures up a credible if vaporous rendition of the classic hippie van. She defines the form of the van by using bent aluminum tubing suspended from the ceiling and, hanging below, a clear vinyl curtain.

The image of the decorated van is almost photographic when seen from a distance. Up close, the recognizable image dissolves into geometric abstract patterns made of precisely lined-up rows of identical Chartpak vinyl flowers. In this way, the flowers carry out the photographic effects only through color changes, almost in the manner of a digital print. This relationship to digital technology is not casual: Sperber used computers to determine the flowers' placement in order to achieve a high level of photographic detail.

Despite the use of computers, a nostalgic feeling does pervade Duality/Autonomy; otherwise, I probably wouldn't have been humming Donavan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" as I made my way through it.

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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