Anything goes in contemporary art these days, judging from two sets of solos now at two of the city’s most noteworthy galleries. Collectively, the four cover a lot of stylistic ground, yet each of the separate visions is still credibly contemporary.
In the sprawling front gallery of Michael Warren Contemporary, The Way of the White Clouds: new works by Meghan Wilbar showcases the artist’s distinctive expressionist views of the vistas she’s seen in her travels throughout Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Meghan Wilbar lives in Pueblo, and this show demonstrates Michael Warren's laudable specialty of finding and promoting Colorado artists who live outside of the Denver/Boulder corridor and aren't as familiar to metro audiences as they should be.
As indicated by the show’s title, these paintings examine clouds. However, Wilbar does not intend to render them precisely as they appeared in the sky, but instead to think about them, and the landscape below, and then convey her memory onto the canvases. Her palette is unnatural, tending toward yellows and oranges where whites and blues might be expected; the colors are also limited, rather than a free spectrum. Her brushwork is very free, with smears and runs standing in for details. Both the colors and the brushwork amp up the abstract quality of these paintings, but the essence of the landscape still comes through every time.
In the smaller gallery in back is Kelton Osborn: Inaccessible Spaces, with large, mostly square paintings coming out of the color-field sensibility; they leave a completely different impression than the much subtler Wilbars. Kelton Osborn, who is an architect as well as an artist, usually creates work with an architectonic quality, like the installation “Peel” at the recent Art of the State at the Arvada Center, a bunch of little geometric solids hanging on the walls.
This new body of work represents a radical, surprising break from that vocabulary. The paintings comprise large swatches of strong color, casually arranged and sometimes with simple drawings sparely arranged on top. The depth of field in the pictures has been compressed and, as a result, they appear very flat, especially coming from someone like Osborn, who likes to get three-dimensional.
For another change in vision, there’s the conceptual take on originality in Mario Zoots: Gentle Distortion, in the spacious second-floor gallery at K Contemporary. Denver Artist Mario Zoots is well known for his collages, but while these are all collage-based pieces, some fly far afield from his signature work, at least in the techniques he’s manipulating. Going all the way back to his college days, Zoots's collages had relied on appropriating already extant images that he would change in some way — cropping, marring — to turn into entirely new images. With the works in this show, Zoots addresses appropriation head on by taking the images from himself. Sometimes he does this simply by scanning the original collage and then blowing it up in a digital print, but in other cases Zoots actually had a copy of the collage painted in oil on canvas by someone working in China for a painting mill, a source he found on the Internet.
At the beginning of the show, Zoots displays this chain of interpretations in “Untitled (Woman with Camera),” which appears in three renditions. To make the master image, Zoots used an old found advertisement in which a woman is seen in three-quarters profile with a camera across one side of her face; around the edges of the subject are colored shapes and cut photos, kind of like a halo. This arrangement of forms and imagery appears on the collage, then on an enlargement on board that’s been cut to follow the contours of the composition and, finally, on the painting done by the proxy painter. There are definitely differences between the three, most obviously their varied sizes: The collage is the smallest, the cut enlargement the biggest. But otherwise, they are amazingly similar despite the different ways in which they were made.
In other sections of the show, those contracted-for paintings are seen without their related collages or enlargements, but they still work as objects emitting their own kind of charisma. The densely composed “Untitled (Dafen 3)” and “Untitled (Dafen 7)," which hang side by side, are wonderfully luxurious. These are such accurate copies that at first you’d swear they were the collages themselves, not copies made overseas. Other standouts are two monumental UV prints based on collages that have been laid on birch panels propped against opposite walls, creating a sacred space of sorts. Even though they are simple compositions, with just a few elements in each, they have a pronounced monumental character. These were my favorite pieces.
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The project space at K Contemporary, also on the second floor, has been filled to the limit with scores of works by Denver's Michael Dowling. With these painted books and sculptures, he's created an aesthetic vision that seems like a mashup of the Dutch Masters and scribbles, and the resulting line is very elegant.
In the center of the room are three spires made from beams standing on end, on top of which are heads modeled from clay that Dowling intends to cast in bronze or have done as 3-D prints in plastic. The features on the faces are comical — or, more to the point, grotesque. Surrounding the heads are rectangular paintings of recognizable subjects, including people and birds. The paintings are done on hardcover books that have been opened to the center, the loose pages frozen with a heavy coat of white acrylic. Then, with a very fluid stroke, Dowling puts in the depictions using charcoal. The open books have been haphazardly, and very effectively, hung on the wall in a crowded, free-form arrangement, functioning like bas-reliefs. More than that of most contemporary artists, Dowling’s approach has an association with traditional art, but he bends it to his will, using books in lieu of canvases, and in the process drags it into the contemporary realm.
In the early 21st century, the orderliness of 20th-century modernism is long gone, with artists now working in any style they feel like, as these four solos so aptly demonstrate.
Meghan Wilbar and Kelton Osborn, through May 25, Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-635-6255, michaelwarrencontemporary.com.
Mario Zoots: Gentle Distortion, with Michael Dowling, through June 1 at K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street, 303-590-9800, kcontemporaryart.com.