New Again

Since the impressionists invented modernism nearly 150 years ago, relentless innovation has been the buzzword in contemporary painting. Newer has been better since at least the late nineteenth century, at which point new art trends started coming along one after another. Impressionism was eclipsed by post-impressionism, then by neo-impressionism, then by expressionism, and so on.

Many of those styles have uncannily represented the decades during which they held sway. And that shorthand approach to art history is especially useful in evaluating American contemporary painting since World War II. In the 1950s, abstract expressionism was the cutting edge. Pop art dominated the 1960s. Minimalism became emblematic of the 1970s. And neo-expressionism held the spotlight in the 1980s.

And finally, in the 1990s, it's...who knows?
The 1990s started with a bang for contemporary art; it was the sound of the international art market collapsing. The crash was brought on by worldwide real estate and financial woes. But there may be another reason for the art world's continuing inability to sail out of the doldrums: the fact that the 1990s haven't yet claimed a signature style.

These days, what's new in contemporary painting is what's old. From the incorporation of found objects and the revival of abstraction to the renewed interest in surrealism and the rediscovery of traditional techniques, there's a collective disinterest in innovation. Suddenly, newer isn't better--older is.

Showcasing this fact is an intelligent and thoughtfully put together show in the upper-level galleries of the Arvada Center, Eggs, Milk and Wax: Old Techniques in New Paintings, which comes to the end of its run this weekend. The show, three years in the making, was organized by Rudi Cerri, an exhibition designer for the Arvada Center who has curated a show or two every year since assuming his post four years ago.

Cerri was raised in north Denver but was born in Italy, and he's maintained close ties with his homeland, including a stint during college when he studied Italian art techniques there. That experience left Cerri with an interest in the painting methods of the old masters and ultimately led him to conceive this show. "I've always enjoyed frescoes and the richness of egg tempera and encaustic, and I thought it would create greater awareness in the art audience to bring these techniques together," he says.

For Eggs, Milk and Wax, Cerri has assembled works by eight local artists and three out-of-towners, supplementing the exhibit with a separate showcase that lays out how the paint and glazes used by the artists are made. Those methods aren't familiar to everyone, and explaining them in plain language is an extra step that demonstrates the value of having an exhibition designer like Cerri curate a show.

The age-old techniques he highlights here--fresco, egg tempera, oil glazing, casein and encaustic--were regarded as all but archaic a decade ago. However, they've never really gone away, having been handed down from one generation of artists to the next. For living proof, Cerri's show points to Colorado's own Eric Bransby.

Bransby's style was forged from the mural tradition of the Great Depression. It was during the 1930s and into the 1940s that he studied with Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson, two of the period's greatest exponents of mural painting. His apprenticeship with Robinson was at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where he also learned at the knee of fresco master Jean Charlot.

In the fresco technique, pigments suspended in water are applied to wet, rough plaster. Because both the paint and the plaster are wet, the colors are literally in the painting--not on its surface. The untitled fresco that Bransby contributes to Eggs, Milk and Wax shows off his traditional approach to the method; in his portrait of a frontiersman in buckskin, he has deeply stained the plaster to create luminous, bright hues.

The other artist who displays frescoes in Eggs, Milk and Wax takes an opposite approach to the form. Shawn Dulaney, an expatriate Denverite now living in New York, uses pale washes of color instead of the full-bodied shades preferred by Bransby. In the landscape "Dark Clustered Hill," even the dark brown of the hillside is transparent in places. The recognizable elements--the hill, the trees, the sky--are little more than suggestive smears and smudges.

The eggs referred to in the show's title are served up in three simple, almost childlike landscapes by Chicago's Eric Rucker and in a tightly rendered traditional scene from Denver's Mark Thompson. Those painters work in egg tempera, a mixture of ova and powdered pigments. Going over more easily are the efforts of New Mexico's Louis Romero, who combines traditional tempera with layers of oil glazes. As a result, his paintings glow. In "Orchard," the limbs of bare trees in winter are seen at sunrise, while "The Missing I," a confusing scene involving a woman washing clothes in a bucket, is set at twilight.

The highly regarded Denver artist Trine Bumiller also works in oil glazes. But unlike Romero, she uses oil paints, not tempera, as her base. Bumiller lays down opaque oil pigments and then builds her surfaces with hundreds of coats of thin, transparent oil colors, creating a finished product so shiny that her paintings look wet. As the densely organic oil on panel "Confluence" makes clear, Bumiller's multiple-glaze layers not only make for a shiny veneer, but they allow her to create the illusion of great depth on a thin, flat surface.

Another classic method brought out of retirement in the Eggs, Milk and Wax show is the use of casein, a milk-based paint that, believe it or not, was the forerunner of acrylic latex. Denver artist Stephen Batura is represented by three large casein-on-panel paintings, including the recently completed "Muffle," a detail of a women's garment in beautiful shades of purple and pink. "Taper," a gigantic diptych of a gown on a golden field that premiered in Batura's Vitti show at Pirate earlier this year, looks even more monumental in the larger space allotted it in Arvada.

Also making a case for casein is Denver's Dean Habegger, who has used the material to create a lively series of brightly colored panels that combine geometric patterns with organic shapes. A quilt-like pattern covers the entire frame of 1996's "Yellow," one of several paintings identified by its colors.

The last of the five painting methods explored by Cerri is encaustic, in which pigment is mixed with molten wax. The resulting paintings have a dull sheen that has become all the rage in recent years: Contemporary artists have widely embraced encaustic, something that most definitely can't be said for fresco, egg tempera, oil glazing or, especially, casein.

David Labbett of Denver uses wax over plywood as an element of his bas-reliefs, but he doesn't really paint with wax. Rather, he uses it as one of several materials. For this reason, his inclusions here--wall-hung sculptures in what is supposed to be a painting show--have only a tenuous connection to the others in the exhibit.

More in line with the painting theme of the show is Boulder's Kristen Peterson. Her surfaces have a waxlike dullness from the encaustic, and she paints primitively, capturing eerie representational scenes. In the diptych "I Remember It That Way," Peterson has paired a view of a winding road with one of an archetypal form reminiscent of a building. The lonely and desolate scene and the threatening skies contribute to the sense of alienation and foreboding.

Widely influential Denver painter Tree Laurita is also represented by encaustic paintings. But unlike Peterson's, Laurita's surfaces have a translucent glow. Laurita, who's become something of a star the last couple of years, was an early exponent of a style that takes lyrically drawn recognizable elements and puts them in unexpected and disturbing arrangements. Many other artists, particularly on the alternative scene, have since taken up the cause.

This interest in the unsettling is easy to see in Laurita's 1996 encaustic on panel "Giant," where an elegantly drawn nude torso emerges from the eye of a crudely painted head. The wax is used to great effect, especially in the white-on-white ground. Another beautiful effort from Laurita is the 1996 diptych "Unburied Winds." Particularly nice in this painting is the relationship between the vibrant red-orange of a flaming crown and a frothy blue field evocative of the sky.

Exhibition organizer Cerri has succeeded in making his point about how old materials are an increasingly important component in new paintings. And he has made another point, perhaps unintentionally. Though all the artists here employ traditional (if offbeat) methods, their work covers a broad range of pictorial interests. No single style has captured the attention of contemporary painters the way neo-expressionism did in the 1980s. And it looks like it's going to stay that way for some time.

Eggs, Milk and Wax: Old Techniques in New Paintings, through November 24 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

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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