Hidden Treasures

Although Mary Mackey announced a couple of months ago that her namesake gallery on the city's west side would close at the end of the year, it now appears the gallery will remain open at least into 1997. No such uncertainty, however, surrounds the life expectancy of two superb shows now at the will-it-close-or-won't-it art space. They're definitely closing at the end of the month, and they're definitely worth seeing--whether or not they represent the prelude to Mackey's swan song.

In Mackey's multi-room front gallery is Al Wynne and Lou Wynne, which pairs the superb abstract oil paintings of modern Colorado master Al and the lovely ceramic vessels of his wife, Lou. The former M-Art gallery space at Mackey features a second self-titled show, by the wonderful ceramic artist (and relative newcomer to Denver) Judith Cohn.

The Wynne-Wynne exhibit in the front gallery is a knockout, even if Al's abstract paintings have nothing at all to do with Lou's Oriental-flavored ceramics. The common thread here: Both Wynnes have produced large bodies of work that reflect decades of effort in their respective media.

Now 74, Albert G. Wynne was born in Colorado Springs in 1922. A precocious talent, he studied with Boardman Robinson at the Broadmoor Academy when he was only twelve years old. His classmates were of college age, and Al may be the last--he is surely the youngest--surviving product of the Academy, which closed in 1936. After completing high school, Wynne continued his art studies at the University of Denver, where he worked under the guidance of famous local painters of the 1940s, including John Edward Thompson, Watson Bidwell and Vance Kirkland.

Following World War II, Wynne left Denver, completed art studies at Iowa Wesleyan College and the University of Iowa, then began a career as an art teacher in that state. He went on to teach at public schools and at colleges and universities in Tennessee and Alaska, returning to Colorado Springs in the early 1960s to take a job at Colorado College. In 1964 he began offering art classes at the then-nascent University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, in the process essentially founding that school's art department.

Wynne also taught art classes at a private art school that he and Lou established at their home in the Black Forest, north of Colorado Springs. (He continued to take art students until his partial retirement in 1981.) The Wynne Studio was housed in a complex the artist built himself that includes the house he shares with Lou, his painting studio, and her ceramics studio. One of the most interesting features of the complex, which was built over several years in the 1960s, is Wynne's early embrace of experimental solar technology.

But if Wynne's hobby was home construction and his day job was art instruction, his true vocation was always painting. His mature work dates back to the 1950s, though the oldest pieces in the show at Mackey Gallery are from the early 1960s. These classic paintings have been supplemented by Wynne's work from the last few years, which is closely related to the earlier pieces, as well as by a group of older paintings that have been reworked by the artist.

Among the several 1960s paintings included in the show are a number that demonstrate how profoundly Wynne mastered his trademark combination of abstract expressionism and constructivism. Wynne says his hybrid style has its roots in calligraphy, a medium in which an almost architectural relationship exists between the heavy black ink and the white or light-colored paper. Wynne is an expert practitioner of calligraphy and has studied its history, absorbing the lessons not only of Oriental calligraphy but of the hand lettering seen in the medieval Irish, English and German Bibles that predate the dawn of mechanical printing.

But calligraphy is a spiritual guide for Wynne, not a literal one, and viewers can be forgiven if they don't see more than the vaguest suggestion of the written word in the artist's work. In fact, Wynne's only obvious debt to the form is the spontaneous mark or line from which he builds his compositions. It's a device seen in the show's most important painting, the majestic "Memory of HK," a 1964 oil on linen. The painting is covered with linear "drawn" lines that depict a surrealist scene of ambiguous subject matter. Wynne's method in this painting, as with most of the others now at Mackey, was to create a composition intuitively; the vaguely organic forms are as much the casual by-products of Wynne's brushwork as they are willful creations.

Another of the important older paintings in the Mackey show is "Procession," completed on the morning of November 22, 1963. Wynne says he finished the piece before he had heard about John F. Kennedy's assassination. But looking back, he was struck by how much the abstract forms evoke a scene of a fallen figure in the midst of a crowd. The painting also has a sense of enveloping gloom and sadness, an effect not offset by the limited use of cheery shades such as pink and yellow.

The paintings Wynne has produced in the last few years remain in the spirit and tradition of his earlier work. A good example is the 1996 oil on canvas "Joyous Duo," whose white field reveals in a few places the dark earth-tone scribbles that lie underneath its surface.

Wynne's work is intensely personal, and he tenaciously declares his individuality. In an in-your-face written statement prepared for this show, Wynne declares that he paints (just in case you were wondering) to satisfy "my inner being... not yours...mine." You'd have to know the irascible Wynne to understand that he writes this only because he means it.

While Al Wynne was establishing himself as an important local abstract painter, his wife was working in a variety of art mediums. A public-school art teacher for decades, Lou Wynne settled on clay as her medium of choice in the early 1970s, when she studied with Colorado potters Nan and Jim McKinnell. It was through the McKinnells that Wynne embraced the Japanese ceramic tradition that still marks her work.

Wynne's approach to glazing--here it ranges from natural hues to lustrous, toned-up colors--also owes a debt to the McKinnells. But her approach to vessel forms is clearly her own. Wynne often hand-builds her beautiful functional wares such as vases, planters and even small tables from flat slabs of clay. A typical feature of these objects is Wynne's use of a pyramidal base married to an identical but inverted pyramidal top. Thus her signature vessels have a prominent foot and an equally pronounced mouth, with a body that has merely been suggested.

The former M-Art space at Mackey has been reserved for Judith Cohn, an exhibit of ceramic works by a native New Yorker raised in Canada who has shown locally only in the past few years. When Cohn arrived in Denver by way of New Mexico, she brought with her a set of formidable credentials. She studied briefly in the 1970s at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and later, in the 1980s, at New York State's Alfred University and Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art.

To mention Bezalel, Alfred and Cranbrook in the same breath is enough to make any ceramics enthusiast swoon. And Cohn's work lives up to her resume, with works that range from pierced and flaring vessels to vases on pedestals, as well as other pieces that are purely sculptural. She has said that Jun Kaneko, her mentor at Cranbrook, was a heavy stylistic influence. And this can be seen clearly in Cohn's decorated surfaces, which are sometimes painted on and at other times deeply gouged into the surface. Her glazes are often garish and display almost shocking color juxtapositions, as in "Flora," a glazed vase on pedestal from 1995. The pedestal is peacock blue, the vase an intense orange-red.

Gallery director Mackey has bemoaned the fact that attendance has been very low for these two shows. "A lot of people don't know who they are," Mackey says of the artists. It's understandable that many locals would be unaware of Cohn and, for that matter, Lou Wynne, who has kept a low profile over the years and whose efforts as a curator are better known than are her pots. But there's no excuse for anyone not to know the work of Al Wynne, one of the most important abstract painters to have worked in Colorado--and no excuse not to catch this trio in a great pair of shows.

Al Wynne and Lou Wynne and Judith Cohn, extended through November 30 at the Mackey Gallery, 2900 West 25th Avenue, 455-1157.

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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