Review: The Reality of Abstraction at 808 Projects and K Contemporary Shows

Installation view of Margaret Pettee Olsen’s Relay at 808 Projects.
Installation view of Margaret Pettee Olsen’s Relay at 808 Projects. Courtesy of Wayne Rogers, 808 Projects
It’s amazing how many contemporary artists in this region are doing abstracts these days — far more than a decade ago, when takes on representational subjects were much more popular and conceptual realism was the front-runner. My theory is that neo-modernist abstraction has become a major style for our times because, in a way, it’s the 21st century’s version of traditional. At the very least, it’s supplanted traditional in terms of viewer popularity. That’s not meant as an insult; the current vogue for abstraction reflects a widespread appreciation of work that’s new but still evokes the stylishness of the recent past. The pieces in a trio of solo shows, all made up of abstracts, are part of this trend.

The impressive Margaret Pettee Olsen: Relay, showcasing the Colorado artist’s large, all-over abstracts, is now on display at 808 Projects. The venue isn’t a traditional gallery, or even a co-op — even if it looks like one.
Originally a grocery store, the old building was derelict when Wayne Rogers rehabbed it earlier this year, dividing the structure into exhibition space up front and offices and studios in the back. The story of how this particular show came to be is poignant: Pettee Olsen was preparing for an upcoming solo at Goodwin Fine Art, but last month owner Tina Goodwin announced she’d be closing by the end of this year. “Tina came to my studio to break the news,” says Pettee Olsen. In a lucky happenstance, she was soon contacted by Jeff Lambson, director of the Emmanuel Gallery, who told her she was ideally positioned to fill an unexpected hole in the fall schedule at 808 Projects. Art historian and art writer Stephanie Grilli cherry-picked the collection meant for the ill-fated Goodwin display to curate the show at 808 Projects. (Pettee Olsen is represented in Goodwin’s send-off group show, Coalesce, on view there now.)

click to enlarge "Distraction with Orange Redaction" (left) and "Value Scale" (right) in Margaret Pettee Olsen: Relay at 808 Projects. - COURTESY OF WAYNE ROGERS, 808 PROJECTS
"Distraction with Orange Redaction" (left) and "Value Scale" (right) in Margaret Pettee Olsen: Relay at 808 Projects.
Courtesy of Wayne Rogers, 808 Projects
Pettee Olsen’s paintings are richly layered. The bottom-most coat of vaporous blacks set against a light-colored ground, with tones that range from off-white to amber, appear almost photographic until you notice there are no tangible images — it just looks like there are. Pettee Olsen is actually referencing printmaking; she has a background pulling prints for contemporary masters. On top of this layer, automatist brushstrokes, some very wide and bold, obscure the underlying black and light field. Over that, she “edits” out part of the compositions with hard-edged shapes that define the surfaces as the other layers fall back into imaginary space. One particularly interesting aspect of these paintings is the way Pettee Olsen juxtaposes related colors to create what appear to be “flashes,” shifting colors as you walk by. This effect is so complete, I asked if she was using luminescent paints like those applied to parking lots. Turns out she wasn’t.

Getting unusual and unexpected results from pigments (and other materials) is also a hallmark of Same As It Ever Was: Nina Tichava, on the second floor at K Contemporary. Based in New Mexico, where she spent part of her childhood, Nina Tichava is interested in creating work as “unplanned as possible,” she’s written, though she does rely on a special process she developed for her mixed-media paintings typically done on top of linear collages. Following penciled grids on the collages, she lays in a pattern of dots that are brush-painted on. As the pigment dries, the individual dots take on the hydrostatic shape of water drops, which they resemble even though they are opaque rather than clear.

click to enlarge Nina Tichava’s paintings at K Contemporary. - COURTESY OF K CONTEMPORARY/PHOTO BY JORDAN SPENCER
Nina Tichava’s paintings at K Contemporary.
Courtesy of K Contemporary/photo by Jordan Spencer
Same As It Ever Was includes examples from three Tichava series — “Lanterns,” “Botanicals” and “Weavings” — that all reflect the artist’s life experiences. In appearance, the three cross one another: “Lanterns” is dominated by circles, “Botanicals” is evocative of stands of trees but doesn’t depict them literally, and “Weavings” sports dense linear arrangements of narrow shapes. One distinctive Tichava signature is the array of marks she creates across an individual panel that is then paired with another, but instead of fitting the panels together in a specific way, the pieces are composed so that they can be rearranged with the shapes on the panels fitting together in multiple variations. This show also includes a large selection of miniature versions of the same idea and, as an adjunct, scenic postcards covered in dots of pigment like the large paintings.

click to enlarge Nina Tichava's Same As It Ever Was at K Contemporary. - COURTESY OF K CONTEMPORARY, PHOTO BY JORDAN SPENCER
Nina Tichava's Same As It Ever Was at K Contemporary.
Courtesy of K Contemporary, photo by Jordan Spencer
Both the monumental and the miniature paintings suggest a fanatical attention to detail: The pieces include reams of cut and torn paper; hundreds, if not thousands, of brushstrokes; and even bunches of little brass nails thrown in here and there, hammered into the surfaces. The collision of all of these elements make the Tichava pieces eye-dazzlers, and it’s amazing that she made nearly everything in this fairly extensive solo in just the last year or two.

More quiet in their appeal, though also striking, are the elegant paintings of Cobbled Landscapes: Karen Roehl, snuggly installed in and by an exhibition space in the back. Roehl does two distinctive kinds of work, straddling contemporary and traditional genres with abstracts that broadly refer to nature but are essentially non-objective, and illusionistic impressions of horses that are semi-abstracted. The K show focuses on the abstracts, of course. Roehl has written that she is inspired by the abstract expressionists and creates her paintings “intuitively,” and several of these include passages of earth tones with scribbles that hint at plants and flowers.

click to enlarge Installation view at K Contemporary of Cobbled Landscapes: Karen Roehl. - COURTESY OF K CONTEMPORARY, PHOTO BY JORDAN SPENCER
Installation view at K Contemporary of Cobbled Landscapes: Karen Roehl.
Courtesy of K Contemporary, photo by Jordan Spencer
Despite the fact that the room devoted to Roehl is fairly small, her paintings are large: She wants viewers to be enveloped in mural-sized paintings. I especially like her palettes, with lots of luscious if toned-down shades and touches of strong colors like acid green or pink set against large areas of more subtle tones, including grays ranging from dove to charcoal. She also inserts detailing in graphite loops and shapes, and rows of paint drips that can look like fringe. A couple seem to have been painted over in such a way as to reveal portions of a lower level of abstract imagery that can be glimpsed here and there.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the transformation of the collective taste of the art audience — and the artists. These three shows give me even more food for thought.

Margaret Pettee Olsen: Relay, through November 30, 808 Projects, 808 Santa Fe Drive, 720-440-3099,

Nina Tichava and Karen Roehl, through November 24 and December 1, K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street, 303-590-9800,
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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