Major Leagues

Commercial art galleries rarely coordinate their shows. The normal practice for galleries, even those next door to one another, is to schedule shows according to the vagaries of artists' schedules and the idiosyncrasies of gallery directors. But viewers sometimes luck out, as they did this past winter when Robischon Gallery presented the work of abstract-expressionist pioneer Robert Motherwell while across the street, 1/1 was hosting his most prominent local heir, Dale Chisman.

Here's another lucky strike: the pointedly complementary shows Major Paintings at Denver's mighty Inkfish Gallery and Major Prints around the corner at that cultural treasure, Open Press. Given the bombastic quality of the word "major," one might expect Inkfish and Open Press to fall short of our inevitably raised expectations. Instead, both shows live up to their grandiose titles in spades.

The idea for the two shows was hatched by Inkfish director Paul Hughes and Open Press master printer Mark Lunning: Why not present paintings and prints by some of the most accomplished modern and contemporary artists who have worked or are working in Colorado? "At first we wanted to have paintings and prints by the same artists, but that proved impractical," says Hughes. As a result, just three of the artists have work featured in both shows.

Inkfish's Hughes showcases many of the biggest local names in his stable. And none is more renowned than Bauhaus professor and Aspen resident Herbert Bayer, who died in 1985. Bayer's 1970s acrylic on canvas "Opening (on Black)" is the kind of work that made him famous--a group of tightly painted stripes in shades ranging from cool violets to hot yellows on a field of luxurious black. Seeing it on the gallery walls, it's hard to believe we aren't looking at a page in an art-history book.

A related approach to geometric abstraction is taken by the less celebrated--at least for now--Emilio Lobato. He's fresh from a triumphant solo show at the Arvada Center, but Lobato obviously burned the midnight oil to come up with the fabulous mixed-media piece "Cenizas." At the center of a huge canvas, Lobato has placed a disarmingly simple arrangement of black forms reminiscent of clunky calligraphy. The effect is stunning.

Leaving the hard edges and straight lines of geometry behind are painters David Yust of Fort Collins, Amy Metier of Boulder, Denver legend Roland Detre, and Sushe Felix from Manitou Springs.

For the last thirty years, Yust has served as an important local proponent of minimalism. His work has evolved from his taped and masked paintings of the 1960s--in which any suggestion of hand work was eschewed--to recent efforts in which blending and brushwork are clearly visible.

Metier is represented by the gorgeous and brand-new (it's still wet) oil on canvas "Pandora's Bottle." The painting continues Metier's habit of blending abstract elements into classic European still lifes. In fact, at first glance, "Pandora's Bottle" looks like a smeary, asymmetrical example of abstract expressionism. Only after careful study does it reveal itself for what it really is--an up-to-date heir to the impressionists and the cubists.

That's the same formula Detre uses in the 1970s oil painting "Bullfighter," in which the bull, the matador and the crowd are barely visible due to the scabrous surface created by heavy applications of pigment. Of course, it's only fair to point out that, at 94, Detre is old enough to have been not just the heir to classic modernism, but a full participant in its development.

Also looking back to classic art while subjecting it to her will is Felix, whose acrylic on board from last year, "Liquid Transcendence," pays its respects to the early-twentieth-century transcendentalists of the American Southwest. In the top loop of a fanciful figure eight are forms suggestive of rain clouds; in the bottom, the suggestion of water. "Liquid Transcendence" fully reveals Felix's chief strength as an artist: technical expertise tied to a unique vision.

Hughes has also stocked the show with a powerful lineup of contemporary landscape painters, including Felix's husband, Tracy Felix, Steve Walker from Boulder and Kulani Davis, who divides her time between Denver and San Francisco.

"Hallett Peak and Emerald Lake," an oil on canvas, is one of those large, conventionalized mountain scenes by Tracy Felix that stand as examples of his skill and care. The dense and massive painting reveals in its incredible detail the application of a staggering amount of brushwork. Like his wife, Felix makes references to historic regional art; but while she looks to the bohos of Taos, he prefers the dandies of the Broadmoor Academy.

So, too, does Walker, whose new oil on canvas "Denver" features the active surface and broken-color expressionism associated with Broadmoor masters Ernest Lawson, John Carlson and Birger Sandzen. Despite the title, no buildings appear in the frame; Walker has chosen to view the city from the foothills, and it's mostly trees and clouds. Walker was the most accomplished of a generation of neo-expressionists who established themselves locally in the 1980s; unlike most of his contemporaries, he's since gone on to greater heights.

Davis's oil on canvas "Back Roads" also has its roots in neo-expressionism--and also further develops the form. A vista of a rainstorm in the mountains has been reduced to blobs and stripes; creamy whites, blues and greens play in perfect counterpoint to the dark purples and oranges.

A similar mix of "major" abstract and representational art is seen in the Open Press companion show. But in this case, everything was made right on the premises, in Lunning's back-room print shop.

Lunning is not just a print technician, he's a fine artist as well. The best proof of this is the untitled monoprint in which he shows off his increasingly impressive etching technique. Lunning has placed a small vertical etching of a scribble next to a large view of a sidewalk receding into a halo. For the capper, he has saturated the paper with ink, rendering the colors absolutely luminous.

So what group show of important locals could possibly leave out Denver legend Dale Chisman? Not one put together by Lunning, who here showcases two Chisman prints. The striking colors Chisman achieves in his monotype "OP 194" are the kind of accomplishments that earned him his imposing reputation. Using a rich, nearly metallic golden ocher and the blank paper as his ground, Chisman draws straight and curved lines in a deep, vibrant indigo.

Another great abstract print is "Untitled," a monotype by Lynn Heitler. Made up of a wide array of warm greenish and cool purplish grays, both in inks and in photo transfers, it strikes just the right tension between rectilinear elements and gestural ones. "Untitled" is a beautiful work of art.

Taking an entirely different tack is Joellyn Duesberry, one of Denver's most respected representational artists. Her monotype "Mt. Desert From Calf Island, Maine" is a lyrical scene of mountain and sea. This print looks like a watercolor, since the inks have been used at their most transparent and vaporous limit--the blues of the sea and the tans of the sand are sublime.

The only artist in either show to reveal the influence of pop art is Doris Laughton, a transplanted New Yorker who now works in a home studio in the foothills. "The Night's Scream," a monotype that incorporates stamped images and chine colle, brings together a menagerie of ducks and songbirds with humanoid figures and a tornado. And the compositionally surefooted Laughton is more than equal to the task of associating such disparate pictorial elements.

As one leaves Major Paintings and its mate, Major Prints, it's tempting to reflect on just how easy it really is to put together top-tier exhibitions. Rather than follow the latest trends, Hughes and Lunning simply chose to include important works by important artists. Now, wasn't that simple?

Major Paintings, through May 31 at Inkfish Gallery, 116 South Broadway, 715-9528.

Major Prints, through June 30 at Open Press, Ltd., 40 West Bayaud Avenue, 778-1116.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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