Denver shows over the past few months have been dominated by artists using representational imagery, both conceptual and otherwise, including William Stockman, Yoshitomo Saito, Enrique Martínez Celaya and Jordan Casteel, as well as the many participants in Month of Photography exhibits. But now abstract is back, both conceptual and otherwise.
One illustration of this: Michael Gadlin: Shades of Significance, at K Contemporary. Michael Gadlin is a well-known Colorado painter who has a high-profile side gig as a host on Rocky Mountain PBS’s Arts District program. Though he spent some time in New York while attending the Pratt Institute of Art and Design, he’s mostly lived and worked in the Denver area.
His show at K was curated by gallery director Doug Kacena, who's installed everything to its best advantage in the handsome, ground-floor showroom. The secret to Kacena’s exhibition design success is that he gives individual works plenty of breathing room; in this case, you can really see what Gadlin is doing. Over the years, the artist has blended traditional ideas about painting with more contemporary ones, and his current style has something of a retro gloss. While there’s plenty of classic modernism in these pieces, which are similar in attitude to abstract surrealism from the mid-twentieth century, there's also a dash of Dada, along with a refined response to graffiti assembled to carry out the complex and layered compositions. Adding a subtle illusion of depth, Gadlin partly paints over found imagery from the collage elements that lie behind the grounds; on top, he inserts his own vaguely defined shapes and, often at the picture plane, outlines of plants, flowers, geometric shapes and vessels.
Though the palettes vary widely, many paintings have similar pictorial components. “Balance Envy,” “Colors of Me” and “Duality,” among others, offer cartoonish depictions of bowls done with gracefully arching lines. These reminded me of a similar device used by the late Dale Chisman, and it turns out that Gadlin studied with him decades ago at the Art Students League of Denver. The show's tour de force, if only because it’s so large and therefore so impressive, is “Alight and Flight.” The piece is dominated by cool tones of gray and light blue, along with white, that make up most of the ground, but there are also accents, including a large-ish eye shape on the left done in warm yellows, and line drawings of three-dimensional shapes in black. Across the panel, Gadlin lays on loose depictions of flowers and those bowls.
As an offbeat addition, Gadlin has done several installations that are intimately related to the paintings. Taking the drawn elements from those pieces — the flowers, geometric shapes and vessels — he's had them executed in laser-cut MDF and then painted. In one, “Pouring Out,” the multi-colored bits have been scattered across a wall. In another, “Let’s Pour Our Love,” they are on the floor, leaning against a large pipe. The titles of these installations suggest that Gadlin wanted to convey the idea that the MDF pieces have been poured out of the paintings, and that’s kind of how they look.
Another show that puts abstract work at the forefront is Beyond the Framework at Space Gallery, with non-objective pieces by five artists all doing some type of post-minimalism, from hard-edged abstraction to neo-arte povera.
In the entry gallery are works by Philadelphia artist Steven Baris that have the character of pattern paintings, except that the colored bars that define the picture don’t precisely line up, and the bars get wider and narrower here and there. Baris has written that the paintings represent the diagrams of actual spaces, “spaces that are engineered to be placeless…that are highly disorienting and are precisely designed to be passed through.” He's painted these hypothetical diagrams with tight margins and places them against scruffy color fields that serve as backgrounds.
Filling the front corner of the main space are formalist compositions made of old pieces of wood by Hyland Mather. In “Big Stack,” Mather has piled horizontal boards of various dimensions so that the work reads like a block of stripes; linking the boards are lengths of string that look structural but aren't, since they're too thin to hold up the thick wood. Mather also exhibits a group of small wooden sculptures made from materials that are related to those of the wall pieces. In a twist on the standard, Mather calls the found materials he uses “lost,” switching the concept to take the focus off the artist's “finding” and putting it back on the original owner's “losing.”
Though he lives in Europe, Mather is well-known around Denver because he ran the Andenken Gallery, which he relocated to Amsterdam; he currently also oversees an apple orchard in Portugal. Mather has made periodic trips back to the Mile High City to do murals on various buildings. They're abstract, often done in constrained palettes of white and tan. While in town for this show a few weeks ago, he created a wrap-around mural in an outdoor space at the not-yet-opened Space Gallery Annex, located on Cherokee Street.
The Alyson Khan section along the long wall and the south wall at Space is very impressive, even eye-popping. At first Khan's paintings have the air of mathematical compositions, with assemblages of large colored bars with narrow joints between them. Upon closer look, though, the arrangements are much more intuitive, with Khan drawing off many sources, from art deco patterns to tribal marks. Working against the straight lines between the shapes as well as all the pin-striping are the irregular margins of the compositions against the rectilinear stretched canvases on which they’ve been painted. Also contrasting the precisionist nature of her shapes is the apparently hand-done quality of the brushwork.
Interspersed among the Baris and Khan paintings, though set apart from the Mathers, are wire sculptures and very different painted wooden ones, both types by New York's Joshua Enck. The wire sculptures have an anthropomorphic quality, with evocative, rounded overall forms. The painted wooden sculptures are topographic, suggesting conventionalized mountains.
Enck sculptures are also displayed on the second floor, along with elegant screen prints by Frea Buckler, who lives and works in England. Buckler puts together a puzzle of geometric shapes that are crisply done in utterly flat and evenly applied colors with exact margins, all of which are defining qualities of a screen print. The colors and the simplicity give the prints a decidedly mod character harking back to the 1960s.
These shows at K and Space demonstrate abstraction’s persistent appeal in contemporary art, even when representational work has temporarily taken the main stage.
Michael Gadlin: Shades of Significance, through March 30 at K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street, 303-590-9800, kcontemporaryart.com.
Beyond the Framework, through April 6 at Space Gallery, 400 Santa Fe Drive, 303-993-3321, spacegallery.org.
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