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When British artist Erica Daborn moved to Los Angeles in 1987, she came empty-handed. Leaving her work back in England, she arrived in the United States with little more than her art degrees from the Winchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art and a reputation for her...
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When British artist Erica Daborn moved to Los Angeles in 1987, she came empty-handed. Leaving her work back in England, she arrived in the United States with little more than her art degrees from the Winchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art and a reputation for her figural style.

That style soon changed drastically, however. Being in an intense and alien environment without any of her work, which was so closely linked to her identity as an artist, threw Daborn into a kind of culture shock that soon manifested itself in new work. The result fills Out of Place, an in-depth look at a decade's worth of Daborn's meticulous paintings and drawings that closes this weekend at the University of Denver's Art and Art History Gallery.

In England, Daborn had used a labor-intensive technique. But in Los Angeles, she began to quickly sketch images in charcoal, freely translating them into paint. Out of Place includes one of these preparatory drawings--"Reconstructive Surgery," a charcoal on paper from 1987 that leaves no ambiguity as to how Daborn was adjusting to her new home. In a creepy tableau, the artist depicts herself on an operating table. Her arms and legs have been cut off; her heart, with severed veins, lies in the foreground. In the background, the doctor applies a power sander to one of her three breasts, and a nurse waxes her bikini line while another, off the picture plane, plucks her eyebrows. Daborn has erased details in places, providing a smeary ground for the fully fleshed-out figures.

Daborn's maladjustment to the California environment and her biting view of its superficiality continue to be wells of artistic inspiration from which she draws to this day. But she's also interested in social commentary from a leftist perspective. Her linking of cosmetic surgery to more benign forms of beauty treatments--she's wearing curlers in "Reconstructive Surgery"--suggests political (in this case, feminist) content. The stunning, strange "Networking," a 1989 oil on Masonite, takes a broader swipe at life in Los Angeles. Across this large, horizontal picture, four figures hide behind masks, looking part-human, part-sculpture. Each is perched on a stand, and all are interconnected by wires attached to their heads. The four--two men and two women--are fiercely engaged in conversation while passing business cards to one another.

In "Networking," Daborn displays the abstraction of the human figure that today is her signature, an approach that is simultaneously charming and disturbing. The figures suggest illustrations from some nightmarish children's book--a not-incidental reference, since Daborn has increasingly looked to childhood imagery since the birth of her daughter, Nico, in 1989.

Out of Place includes many paintings that take up the topic of motherhood, both in relation to Nico and to Daborn's own mother. "The Blue Cat," an exquisitely painted oil on canvas from 1993, tells the story. In the foreground, a little girl clutches a doll, perhaps Daborn clutching her daughter, as a winged horse carries off an older woman, surely meant to signify her mother. This painting, which reveals a debt to modern master Marc Chagall, has a lyrical quality seen in few other pieces here.

Another way Daborn expressed her role as a mother was by replacing the wires of "Networking" with the umbilical cords in "Life Support," a small oil on Masonite from 1992, and many other paintings. In "Life Support," a standing, worm-like mother with a baby bottle strapped to her back is attached to a supine stuffed animal by a cord coming out of her mouth. In another oil on Masonite, the fastidiously painted "Pacifier"--one of eight pieces from the 1997 "Mothercraft" series included in Out of Place--a green teddy bear is linked by a cord to a women's head shown in profile.

Although her mysterious iconography and idiosyncratic representational style are the most obvious features of Daborn's work, these paintings also display an expert color-blending technique in which each shade is the product of many disparate hues. And Daborn's scrupulously smooth surfaces are sublime; they actually gleam.

Daborn may have left her artistic past behind, but she quickly found her way to even greater work.

Two very different artists share a show at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, and although Denatured gives each artist her own space, their work functions surprisingly well together. Painter Holly Sumner's closely associated monochrome paintings provide just the right atmosphere for Linda Herritt's virtuoso installation.

A New York artist, Sumner has substantial ties to Colorado and still spends summer vacations at her family's cabin in Grand Lake. In the 1980s she lived in Boulder, where she received her MFA from the University of Colorado in 1984; she subsequently exhibited quite a bit in Denver, Boulder and Aspen. Gallery director Robin Rule thinks that Sumner's longtime connection to this state may be the reason her paintings look the way they do. "The visuals are Western, but they have a sophisticated, big-city sensibility," Rule says. "They're Holly's interpretation of the Western experience."

Sumner suggests the American West through simplified abstractions of wild animals, especially wolves, which she expresses through silhouettes carried out in dark-blue paint on a beautiful Wedgwood-blue ground. In "Black American Wolf 2," the running wolf is placed dead center on a horizontal panel; piercing his body from the top and bottom is a contraption made of olive-green arrows. Painted spheres and circles in various colors are scattered above one arrow, while others are aligned with the wolf's joints.

Two of Sumner's standouts here show foxes rather than wolves. In "Surface Waves," which has been heavily streaked with a whitish stain, Sumner places the upside-down (dead?) fox across the length of the panel. This time the painted circles cover parts of the fox; around the fox are ambiguous details that have been painted out. "Hunt" features another fox and a more elaborate painted-out background. Sumner provides a variation on the light-blue ground by pouring solvents down the front of the painting, creating subtle streaks.

The surfaces of Sumner's paintings are dry and dusty, like frescoes, with a dull sheen. For all of the pieces shown here, she's used oil paint applied to the plywood face of a wall-hung wooden box. Each box has thick sides made of boards, which form an armature. This three-dimensionality adds a monumental quality to Sumner's simple, unframed paintings, which fill the gallery's small entryway and line three of its walls.

Rule's back wall has been left blank to provide a visual stop for Boulder artist Linda Herritt's "W.I.N.A.C.C.: F.T.M.," an installation made of sequined fabric, sequined clothing and foam rubber. Although she does use other materials, Herritt's internationally acclaimed installations most often incorporate fabric, typically in the form of draperies. Here, silver fabric is strung in courses, in the manner of Austrian blinds, in a large vertical feature hanging from the ceiling off to the right. This vertical column slowly rotates with the help of electric motors, whose whir is an intended element.

The floor holds a variety of elements, including large stuffed shapes covered in the same sequined fabric and arrayed in front and to the left side of the draped, moving tower. The fabric shapes are laid in beds of shredded foam rubber that has aged to a golden ivory; half-hidden in the foam are pieces of women's clothing--some erotic, some fetishistic, all in silver lame. The clothing is clearly a feminist element, but Herritt's political content is hard to see and, once seen, still difficult to understand.

According to Rule, Herritt intends for "W.I.N.A.C.C.: F.T.M." to convey a Chinese landscape painting. The vertical element is meant to be a waterfall; the forms on the floor, rocks; the shredded foam, foaming water, with the bare floor standing in for a water-filled pool. Although this reading fully explains the installation, viewers are unlikely to come to it on their own. (Interestingly, Rule says the piece particularly appeals to younger viewers because it has a retro, Seventies quality. "It's like a disco ball," she says, pointing to the turning vertical structure, "and the 'rocks' are like beanbag chairs.")

Rule's pairing of Sumner and Herritt in Denatured was inspired. The predominantly blue paintings and the mostly silver installation come together to create an otherworldly glow, a totally engaging atmosphere and a truly special magic.

When wood turned to stone, the current show at Spark Gallery, Denver's oldest existing co-op, also pairs paintings with an installation. But here the artists do distinctly solo turns.

In the larger front gallery, co-op member Susanna Cavalletti Podboy displays four large oil-on-canvas paintings and a half-dozen mixed-media works on paper. The works on paper are small abstractions that refer to nature in their earthy palette and materials--leaves, twigs and feathers. Although the large paintings, traditional and impressionistic landscapes, are less literal in their references, their subject is more straightforward: scenery. In last year's "Lost Location," for example, Podboy creates a classic composition with a twisted tree in the foreground, a meadow and a mountain glimpsed between its boughs. Her style is loose yet captures many details. Particularly nice is Podboy's use of heavy brush strokes to create the gold, brown and green leaves on the tree.

Trees are also the topic of Judith Cohn's ceramic installation that lends its name to When wood turned to stone. But Cohn conveys the trees conceptually rather than realistically. Her installation fills the back gallery to overflowing with roughly spherical ceramic shapes seemingly placed at random, as are the four standing elements meant to be trees. These forms are made in two parts and decorated with abstractions of twigs and, in one case, fruit.

Cohn made the elements that make up her installation with a combination of casting and coil-building. Using low-fire terra cotta, she was able to come up with some fabulous glaze colors in the electric kiln, including a deep red and a variety of turquoise shades. The glaze decorations, which only partly cover the clay bodies, are gestural and include stripes, polka dots and free-form splashes.

Cohn may be a newcomer to Spark, but she's an old pro when it comes to ceramics. A protege of legendary ceramic artist Jun Kaneko, with whom she studied at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, Cohn already has a piece in the renowned ceramics collection of New York's Alfred University. Spark is lucky to have her--and so are Denver art lovers.

Out of Place, through March 13 at DU's Art and Art History Gallery, Shwayder Art Building, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 303-871-2846.

Denatured, through March 20 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473.

When wood turned to stone, through March 14 at Spark Gallery, 1535 Platte Street, 303-455-4435.

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