After fifty years of disrupting the art world, the formerly disreputable style called abstract expressionism has achieved a kind of elder-statesman eminence. Paintings that once were the butt of endless I-don't-know-much-about-art jokes now enrich museums and decorate corporate offices, hotels and movie sets.

Unfortunately, all of this visibility hasn't made the genre any easier to understand or appreciate. At a recent all-abstract show, for example, a darling twelve-year-old was overheard muttering, "This art sucks." Many viewers sympathize with this simplistic reaction when they stare with frustration at what appear to be groupings of mute blobs, scratches and messy paint. Like an inscrutable Zen master, the abstract painting itself offers few clues--even though artists and admirers frequently claim that the art speaks for itself.

Well, yes--but what is it saying?
It helps to know that early abstract expressionists were experimenting with the then-new science of psychoanalysis. They developed the trancelike "working process," in which the artist's body movements while applying paint became an avenue into the unconscious. As a result, the paintings that emerged were revelations apparently as strange and unknown to the artist as to the viewer, a kind of "pure" creation that both could share.

Given this free-wheeling exploration of the interior landscape, sprawling scale has always been a key element of abstract expressionism. That's why the University of Denver's roomy Shwayder Gallery provides a perfect backdrop for recent paintings by Floyd Tunson, Dale Chisman and Jeffrey Keith, three of Colorado's most accomplished abstract painters.

At center stage is Tunson's "Nubian Series"--five paintings that try to abstract the energy, pain and colorful demeanor of African warriors. Although Tunson's use of distinct shapes and earthy colors seems more an attempt to capture the whirling motion of costumed ritual dance than relics from the id, the viewer is tempted to "find things" in the composition: feathers, ceremonial scarring designs, brown skin, a campfire. But Tunson deflects efforts to pin down his abstractions into imagery. Broad brush strokes twist and curl the forms away from the specific, creating dreamy, canvas-spanning washes of dripping paint--perhaps echoing the way tribalism is whitewashed by a racist society.

While drawing such conclusions may seem appropriate--Tunson is African-American--it can also be risky. And although titles of abstract paintings can be helpful in understanding an artist's intent, they often have nothing whatever to do with content. A good example of this is Chisman's spare, cerebral painting "Return," which begs for objective analysis. Chisman divides his canvas into four irregularly balanced portions, just as Jungian psychologists describe the psyche. Archetypal shapes--some resembling whirlwinds, others the sexual parts of crushed flowers--are then sparsely and "accidentally" arranged on the painting, like stones dropped out of God's pocket onto a beach. But the secret depths of this painting build a distance between artist and viewer; communication is insinuated but never clarified. Always the trickster, the artist feints and then retreats into cool contemplation.

The ultimate cool here belongs to Keith, whose splashy works use layers of transparent, shiny paint to project a veiled perspective onto the unconscious. Keith avoids the implication of shape and form better than the other two artists: His murky, obscured motifs resist definition, slipping away to hide in puddles of saturated color. Even so, Keith implants a multitude of moods in his paintings by shrewdly using the psychological effects of hue. His aqua-green "Sylvanus of the City" calls up the feeling of leaping into a swimming pool on a hot day, and you can almost hear the crickets in the black-washed "My Garden at Night Is a Well-Oiled Machine."

Staring at an abstract painting can have the same effect as meditation or certain drugs. Removed from the necessity of assigning specific meaning to every form and line, the mind can wander free, exploring layer after layer of nonverbal content and nuances of color and shape. But is it "good" or "bad" art? Only the artist will ever know the true meaning--or mastery--of his paintings.

3 Painters, through October 14 at Shwayder Gallery, the University of Denver, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 871-2846.

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Hart Hill