Naughty and Nice

It doesn't have what I'd call a seasonal character, but Eye Candy, at Judish Fine Arts, does feel at times like a really wild holiday party. As the title implies, the exhibit is not sharply defined, but comprises things whimsically selected by gallery director Ron Judish according to whether they qualified as visual treats or eye candy.

With this open-ended mandate, the show includes a wide range of work that represents many different styles and techniques. This diversity contributes to the celebratory mood of the show, surely, but that's not what gives the exhibit its raucous flavor; it's the inclusion of erotic art that is scattered throughout, forming a full-fledged leitmotif.

Examples of the hot stuff, such as the homoerotic self-portraits by James Fischer from his "SnapShot" series, start off the sprawling show that spans three of Judish's five gallery spaces. These images are flawlessly composed, cropped color photos of the nude or partly nude Fischer. Some are nearly abstract, such as "SnapShot 06," of Fischer's back, but most are frank in what they depict. Fischer, who lives in Denver, only rarely exhibits his work; I'm sure that's partly because his photos are so out there in that outré X-rated zone.

Even more out there, in the XXX-rated arena, are Michael Ensminger's thirty photos hanging in a grid on the large rear wall beyond the Fischers. Ensminger, also from Denver, is known for the sight-gag photo series that he's done over the past few years. The new Ensmingers in Eye Candy differ from his earlier works partly because they're candid rather than posed. The subjects, nude male sunbathers, didn't know they were being photographed, and Ensminger made sure they wouldn't notice by literally hiding in the bushes to get these juicy shots. Each photo is paired with a sentence or two from a found account of a trip through the Rockies at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ensminger's artful juxtaposition of prose and image is typically inspired and often hilarious.

Not everything in the show has an adults-only character, although some of the more innocent images may appear to be racy, given the context. Two such examples are Gail Wagner's organic, abstract wall sculptures in painted twine hung around the corner from the Ensmingers, and Robert Gratiot's hyper-realist paintings of raw meat and sausages, hung not far from the Wagners. Sea life inspired Wagner's paintings, and Gratiot's are exercises in the meticulously accurate rendering of external reality, but in this show, both take on sexual content that wouldn't otherwise be there.

Sexual content is clearly evident in John Hull's erotic paintings installed near the end of the show. His three paintings capture the prelude to sex, starring a very alluring woman seen nude or in sexy lingerie. Hull's style is brushy and expressive, but at the same time, he presents a believable representation of reality. Typically Hull, the paintings convey a sense of foreboding. But the explicitness of the subject matter strikes me as being unexpected -- though not unwelcome -- from Hull, who has a national reputation as one of Colorado's greatest painters.

Eye Candy is clearly meant for a mature audience, but with all the focus on children this time of year, maybe this kind of grown-up show is just what's needed.

Rated for general audiences are two other shows at Judish, both of which are untitled. Along with the ownership and name change that came in September, Judish reorganized the enormous gallery's interior. In the space immediately adjacent to the last gallery dedicated to Eye Candy is a section labeled "Judish Stable," a strong group show featuring artists represented by Judish. The exhibit lays out the gallery's real strength: placing local masters such as Erick Johnson and Roland Bernier alongside talented emerging artists like Clay Magidson and Michael Chavez.

Another change is the creation of Judish Photography, located in the last of the five galleries. This group show also sports the work of artists represented by Judish, and standouts include pieces by Denver photographers Sarah Timberlake, David Sharpe and Dan Ragland.

Don't miss the meticulously done miniature contact prints by Kevin O'Connell that chronicle a recent trip to France. The jewel-like black-and-white photos, hung in a line along one wall, are gorgeous. O'Connell, another local, is highly regarded and among the city's most respected fine-art photographers. An example of his black-and-white photography is in the photo section of Retrospectacle at the Denver Art Museum. Being part of that show puts O'Connell and the rest of the Colorado artists who made the cut in the same league as the all-time greats. When I ran into him at the preview last month, he was almost giddy.

Eye Candy and the group shows in Judish Stable and Judish Photography -- an over-the-top visual feast -- have been extended through the second week of January.

Closing the first week in January is Mary Ehrin: Fabulous Savage, a sumptuous solo with a jubilant mood at the Rule Gallery. The enrapturing show is made up of Ehrin's conceptual yet highly decorative pieces, which represent a clear refinement of her previous ideas.

The young Denver artist has had a meteoric rise in reputation during the last few years -- quite an accomplishment, because she's still in school and set to complete her MFA at the University of Colorado in Boulder this spring. A protegé of the great Clark Richert, with whom she studied as an undergraduate at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Ehrin established her reputation with geometric wall pieces covered in brightly dyed feathers. The method represents an original take on her mentor's interest in patterns and straightforward compositions.

She applies nary a drop of paint to her feather pieces, yet Ehrin calls them paintings nonetheless. She's not alone in this view, as evidenced by her inclusion in this year's New American Paintings: The MFA Annual, a survey of important young painters in MFA programs nationally. Ehrin was selected by Lisa Dennison, chief curator of New York's Guggenheim Museum, no less. But Robin Rule, the Rule gallery's owner and director, disagrees. "She's a matterist, like Carl Andre," she says.

Ehrin's early pieces were monochromes with feathers attached to a geometric shape. A mark of her success with this approach is that her 2000 "Purple Python Pool," a huge racetrack oval covered in purple marabou feathers, is part of Retrospectacle. "It's pretty amazing to be in a show of that magnitude," Ehrin says. "I adore some of the artists I'm shown with, and honored to be displayed next to them."

Surely many artists, confronted with a solo coinciding with the debut of their work at the museum, would have chosen to create pieces more or less identical to the curator's selection. But that's hardly what Ehrin did for Fabulous Savage. Instead, she pushed her work in several new directions: Organic shapes supplement the geometric ones, and polychromes join the monochromes. Actually, the piece in Fabulous Savage most closely related to "Purple Python Pool" is not even made of feathers; it's a digital video of the surface of an older feather piece slowly moving in the breeze.

The show begins with the large, beautiful wall piece "Madame Royale," a mural composed of pink and yellow ostrich plumes sewn in cascading rows on a backing of silk organza. The piece is named for Marie Antoinette's daughter, hinting that Ehrin's been inspired by France and French fashion. In fact, she went to Paris to study the feathered costumes of the Moulin Rouge and the historic feathered garments displayed in museums.

"I've really sunk my teeth into art history," Ehrin says, "and I've looked at feathered aprons and ancient feathered capes, and they've influenced me. I could never get away from the fact that those things existed." But Ehrin doesn't create reproductions of antiques; she's interested in the here and now. "My work is about fashion, about haute couture," she explains. "And fashion -- and my work -- is a direct reflection of contemporary society."

The plumes seen in "Madame Royale," as well as those used for the similar though considerably larger "Pucci l'Amour," hanging on the back wall, result in a lively expressionistic surface -- but there's still more to it. "With the plumes, I've moved away from the modular geometric shapes I was doing, and at the same time I revealed more of the material," Ehrin explains. "The plumes are feathers, and they look like feathers, which wasn't always true before, when I was using marabou."

For "Madame Royale" and "Pucci l'Amour" Ehrin mounted the plumes in horizontal rows with the ends of the feathers hanging down. In "Savage Star," the plumes are arranged in a radiating circle surrounding a Swarovski crystal. Another circular piece, "Ask the Dauphin," also has a radiating circle of feathers around a Swarovski crystal, but instead of ostrich feathers, Ehrin hand-curled the edges of goose feathers and mounted the whole thing on an upholstered cushion.

The strangest pieces in the show are two in which Ehrin combines feathers with stretched animal hides that have been staked to the wall. In "Little Mermaid Control Panel," a metallic-finished suede hide is accented with a mound of peacock feathers and crystals, including a geodesic sphere. Ehrin used the crystal sphere to pay homage to former teacher Richert, a designer of geodesic domes. "I dreamt of this piece, and it made me think of Clark," she says.

The atmosphere conjured up by Ehrin in Fabulous Savage speaks to luxury; even the show's signage was carried out in looping cursive script done in metallic gold. "A lot of people think of this work as glamorous, and it is," Ehrin says. "But what intrigues me is that people want to touch them, to blow on them, that there's this visceral attraction to the softness and beauty of the feathers, and it's this attraction that's exciting to me."

Mary Ehrin: Fabulous Savage at Rule is a strong and clearly focused exhibit that showcases a young, homegrown talent who is definitely on the way up.

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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