New and Improved

A couple of weeks ago, a group exhibit called Views of Solitude opened and thus served as the premier display of the brand-new William Havu Gallery. The show and, even more so, the gallery itself, elicited audible gasps from many of the more than 500 exhibition-goers who attended the opening reception, and it's had the same effect on others who have sought out the place ever since.

Talk about positive word of mouth!
Bill Havu, the director of his namesake gallery, has been a well-known figure in Denver's art world since the 1980s. At first he operated a wholesale art business upstairs from the Robischon Gallery. "Jim [Robischon] and I restored that building," Havu says proudly, referring to the stately Victorian commercial structure that still stands on the corner of 17th and Park avenues. As a part of his wholesaling, Havu began publishing monotypes by significant regional artists. In 1990 Robischon moved to its current location on Wazee Street; in 1991 Havu opened his own retail art gallery just across from it. At the time, half a dozen of Denver's most prestigious galleries were clustered on the 1700 block of Wazee. Today only Robischon and Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts (itself in a different location) are still there.

Havu called his showroom the 1/1 Gallery; the enigmatic name refers to the way monotypes are marked, and monotypes were Havu's specialty. But in the last few years, 1/1 increasingly hosted exhibits not of monotypes but of paintings and sculptures. Though Havu is still interested in prints, his broader focus led him to change the gallery's name when he moved out of LoDo.

He has also shaken up his stable, releasing many artists and adding several others, including Manitou Springs painters Tracy and Sushe Felix and Denver installation master Lawrence Argent. In events unrelated to the move, two of Havu's best-known artists, Don Stinson and Patti Cramer, left of their own accord in recent months. It's thus no exaggeration to say that the new William Havu Gallery is entirely different from the old 1/1.

And that's clear from the sidewalk out front. The building, constructed specifically to house the William Havu Gallery, makes a statement. But that does come with a price: "$435,000 and counting," says Havu.

Havu is not the only custom-built gallery in Denver--the Turner Gallery in Cherry Creek has a building designed especially for it--but the situation is rare enough to be notable. And whereas Turner shares space with a men's clothier in a red-brick building that looks like a Highlands Ranch mansion, Havu occupies its entire building, which is itself a work of art.

The Havu building was designed by the award-winning Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli. The gallery is one element of the Grand Cherokee Lofts, a large mixed-use project in the Golden Triangle being developed by Mickey Zeppelin and Larry Nelson. The project is one of the best among those that have just been completed or are going up right now in the quickly changing downtown neighborhood. In addition to the gallery, the Lofts comprise a handsome, vaguely neo-traditional tower. The handling of the tower's massing and fenestration by Humphries Poli responds nicely to the nearby Cadillac Lofts, a modernist building from the early twentieth century that was restored a few years ago.

The Grand Cherokee is constructed in concrete and terra-cotta tile, with painted steel ornament in the form of a skeletal cornice set at the top of the walls. Behind the tower is a row of matching townhouses, still under construction, that face an enclosed courtyard. The gallery has access to that outdoor space, where it plans to install temporary sculpture displays.

The flat-roofed, neo-modernist concrete building that houses the gallery has large windows framed in tubular aluminum. Sited mid-block, the structure has been conceived in a three-part formal arrangement: Each component steps back from the street, with the furthest-recessed closest to the Grand Cherokee tower, which sits to the north. In addition, each of the three volumes has its own unique window treatment: The curved entry wall employs thick horizontal panes; on the next segment are squares; and, finally, thin horizontal panes are used for the building's only two-story window. A radial steel canopy with cut-out metal letters spelling the gallery's name visually--and literally--connects the three clearly delineated parts of the facade and leads the visitor's eyes to the entrance. (The sign is similar in function to the one at the Denver Pavilions--but the William Havu Gallery didn't get a dime from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. And unlike the Pavilions sign, it's not supposed to be art. At William Havu, the art's inside.)

The gallery's interior is even more impressive than the exterior. Measuring out at more than 3,000 square feet, the main floor is divided into two large spaces that have been further subdivided through the use of movable walls. Upon entering, gallery visitors find themelves in a dramatic, double-height room--which begs for large sculpture. On the ceiling, the building's heating and cooling systems have been left exposed. Across from the entry is a staircase with painted pipe railings that leads up to the mezzanine, below which is open art storage in the form of sliding expanded metal panels lit by track lights.

But the William Havu Gallery is more than a glitzy space in its own sparkling new building. It's also a place to see first-rate art shows, as indicated by Views of Solitude. For this show, Havu has brought together three well-recognized Colorado artists, all of whom are essentially new to the gallery. Premiering the space with local talent was no accident, since the gallery's focus "will be on the best contemporary artists in the region," Havu says. "I want to take their work and market it nationally. With the Internet, I don't think it's necessary for artists to make it in New York anymore," he adds.

In the current show, Havu juggles three disparate bodies of work. Scattered across the front of the gallery are several large wooden wall reliefs by Bethany Kriegsman. Beyond are collages of paper and oil paint by Emilio Lobato. In the back are abstract paintings and monoprints by Lynn Heitler. Havu has not yet figured out how to use the new space to its best advantage, so there are some jarring unintentional contrasts, especially since Kriegsman's pieces are so different from those of the other two. But aside from occasional difficult transitions, each artist still shines.

Kriegsman has worked and exhibited in Denver for nearly fifteen years. She came to town in 1985 to join the art faculty at the University of Denver, and since then, her quirky wooden wall-hung and floor-mounted sculptures have been exhibited in a variety of commercial galleries and public institutions. Today Kriegsman is the director of DU's School of Art and Art History.

The recent Kriegsman pieces in Views are a continuation of the installations she created for Regis University's O'Sullivan Art Center last year. In these simple constructions made up of complicated components, Kriegsman takes little wooden shapes, stains or paints them and inscribes them with rudimentary drawings. The smaller shapes are joined together in patterns, which suggests both the repeated squares of traditional quilts and the jigsaw-puzzle construction of tramp art. These references to folk art are not unexpected, since Kriegsman was educated in Missouri, a regional folk-art center. She earned her BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis.

But Kriegsman has also been inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics, as seen in the gigantic multi-part wall relief "Hope," which is made of mixed media and metal leafs and includes the image of an elephant and a cormorant. Other constructions are more typically abstract. "Pyramids," an oil on wood with gold leaf, is a diamond-shaped wall panel with a checkerboard stripe through the center, and the rich play of the gold leaf against the pink and other pastel paints is wonderful. There's also a checkerboard motif in "Heaven Above," an oil on wood with silver leaf that includes two parts hung vertically, an elaborate shape of a plume piercing a ziggurat and a horizontal canopy suggestive of the sky.

Lobato, a well-known local painter, has contributed more than twenty closely interrelated paintings to the show--and the place is so big there's room for even more. All the paintings feature dark palettes with lots of black. This current body of work is both a cogent progression from Lobato's paintings of the last year or so and a clear break, since there's also something that's new about them.

Though these paintings are essentially abstracts, Lobato tells us in his terse artist's statement that they are also autobiographical. Lobato writes that the paintings come out of the "isolation and solitude" he experienced while "growing up in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado." The personal aspect of these paintings is further enhanced by Lobato's use of old book pages, some of which are from Spanish-English dictionaries, as collage material. Lobato is Hispanic.

But even though they are covered with pages of found print, the paintings are hard to read from a strictly narrative standpoint, and it's difficult to understand how they illustrate Lobato's upbringing. Nonetheless, they're successful as pure abstractions. In "Encuentro (Encounter)," an oil and collage on panel, Lobato has arranged a series of black circular forms, some of them numbered, on a ground of book pages laid in rows. Like the book pages, the circles are collage elements. On the left side of this central passage is a black bar; on the right, a wide dark-red field. For "Madre & Hijo (Mother and Child)," another oil and collage on panel, Lobato employs organic rather than geometric shapes. In this vertical piece, Lobato pairs a large vegetal form, reminiscent of two black blossoms on a stalk, with a smaller version of the same thing on a field of those ubiquitous book pages.

The show ends with the paintings and monotypes by Heitler, who is another significant area painter. In the selection here, Heitler presents a series of garden views that she has converted into beautifully colored and densely painted abstractions that are downright lyrical. In the oil on canvas "Window Cactus," Heitler lays loosely composed geometric shapes in lavender, cream, yellow and brown over scribbled graphite details. Heitler also displays monoprints side by side with her paintings--and they're surprisingly similar, at times virtually indistinguishable. That's surely the case with the monoprint "Escuela," which is hung next to the closely associated "Baja Breeze," an oil on canvas. But some of Heitler's prints are clearly works on paper and not painterly at all, such as the airy "Zen Garden 7-7-97."

Hung in the gallery's front window is the monotype "Pinata," one of Heitler's few large pieces. For this print, she has smeared vibrant colors including blue, yellow and red in vertical smudges over torn sheets of paper laid underneath the paint. It's fabulous.

The William Havu Gallery's inaugural exhibit is, according to Bill Havu, indicative of the direction he wants the gallery to take. He intends it to be a showcase for the work of some of the best regional artists--and with so many out-of-staters filling up too many of the other commercial galleries in town, it's an idea whose time is way overdue.

Views of Solitude, through December 31 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.

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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