Position and Drift and Quasi-Symmetries

Contemporary art is in a strange period right now. Conservative approaches, notably conceptual realism, have taken center stage, while more progressive tactics, such as abstraction, have been pushed to the side. Contemporary German, Japanese and Chinese art, which have played increasingly important roles in the international scene, seem to be looking back a half-century, adding only a conceptual wink and an implied nod of irony to make their efforts seem fresh and new.

This return to realism was seen last fall in Radar at the Denver Art Museum, which showed off the eccentric yet blue-chip hoard of artwork belonging to mega-collectors and donors Kent and Vicki Logan, who displayed their indifference to abstraction and their almost complete embrace of conceptual realism.

But trends — not to mention trendy collectors — come and go, while artists carry on regardless, riding fashionable currents when they flow in their favor and swimming upstream when fads course the other way. Such is the case with abstraction, which is still strong in Denver and around the world despite the prevalence of representational imagery in the art world right now.

Amy Metier is an artist who fills this bill — one who carries on as an abstractionist regardless of the fickle taste of zillionaires. Her latest expressionist compositions are being shown off to great effect in Position and Drift at the William Havu Gallery. Included on nearly every list of the most important painters in Colorado, Metier has been exhibiting her colorful and decidedly retro takes on classic modernism for more than twenty years. A former student of the great David Yust, she's also a link in a chain of events relevant to the history of art around here. Stylistically, Metier's pieces are very different from Yust's, but perhaps her taste for bold color was encouraged by him.

Metier studied with Yust in the 1970s at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she got her BFA; she earned an MFA in 1979 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she still lives. She began showing her work soon after graduating and has been represented by a string of top galleries over that time, including Sullivan-Bisenius, Inkfish and Havu (for the past decade). She has also been an influential teacher and is currently an associate art professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Position and Drift is a knockout, filled with signature Metiers, many of them monumental in size. The show is a riot of color, with Metier marshaling any number of strong, luxurious shades and then piling them on top of and next to one another. Since the paintings appear to be non-objective, viewers might at first see them as examples of abstract expressionism. But they are actually more akin to neo-impressionism, as there are recognizable subjects, typically landscapes with buildings, underneath all those streaks and smears of toned-up paint. These underlying landscapes — and, in some cases, still-life arrangements — give the paintings formal structure that automatically juxtaposes horizontal and vertical elements.

The atmospheric quality of these works also traces its origin to landscapes. For instance, Metier uses a few marks to define the front surface of the picture plane while most of the rest of the painting recedes into imaginary space. And she pulls off these volumetric effects despite the absence of recognizable elements to provide the viewer with reference points. This can be seen in the beautiful "Traces," in which Metier laid in black and red bars on the top that define the vaporous color fields of yellow and orange behind them.

In a similar vein is "River Roses," but in this case, the smears of pigment are on top of the linear components instead of the other way around. "Roses" is one of the most representational paintings of the lot; it's easy to see that a rosebush on a trellis was the inspiration. Most of the paintings are not as straightforward regarding their sources.

Position and Drift is an absolutely wonderful show, filled with lyrical and powerful paintings. I highly recommend it.

On the topic of must-see outings is Clark Richert's spectacular Quasi-Symmetries, at Rule Gallery. But what else could we expect from the godfather of Colorado contemporary art? Not only has Richert produced a remarkable body of geometric abstracts over the past forty years, but he's also been an arts advocate, and for many years a teacher at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. His influence on other artists has been tremendous, and he has launched a virtual school of followers among one-time students. Some, like Bruce Price, became masters in their own right.

Gallery owner Robin Rule chose to mount Richert's show now so it would still be on view when the new Museum of Contemporary Art building opens at the end of next month. Richert is creating a work of art for the David Adjaye-designed building called "Riemannian Tangercies." It is a curvilinear, non-repeating pattern on the pavement running between the MCA and the striking Falcone/Bruss townhouse, which Adjaye also designed. The Rule show includes a study for this piece that will essentially be a painting on a road — like the famous but long-gone Gene Davis painting that was laid along an entire city block in Philadelphia (which I actually saw as a teenager). I'm sure that the Richert, like the Davis, is going to be very cool.

"Riemannian Tangercies" is part of a body of recent work on display at Rule in which Richert looks to multi-dimensional patterns of tremendous airiness. The colors of the grounds are muted, and even though he does use some bright shades, they are so minimally applied that they don't disrupt the overall sobriety of the paintings. This is in marked contrast to his more densely composed pattern paintings of yore. Yet the two styles are intimately connected as part of Richert's ongoing aesthetic campaign to reconcile physics with art.

To aid the math-impaired (like me), Richert has provided explanations of the different patterns he illustrates. In "R-P/ Kepler," an elegant abstract, Richert outlines complicated geometric shapes, mostly pentagons and diamonds, in blue, green and lavender over a gray ground. He explains that it's a "Richert/Penrose tiling" over a "Kepler tessellation," with both systems based on achieving five-fold symmetry. But the painting is appealing regardless of whether the viewer understands the mathematical formulas on which it's based. Fortunately, that's the case with all the Richerts.

The paintings play off one another, but it's interesting to notice how much visual variety Richert gets with the same premise underlying everything. There are tiny semi-circles, six-sided cubes and even jagged triangular shapes, but all of them are arranged evenly across the painting's surface and against a chicly neutral ground.

Though I had seen a couple of these pieces before, I hadn't seen most of them, so I was surprised when I suddenly realized how much they relate to the work of Richert's onetime mentor, George Woodman. Richert came to Colorado in the 1960s to study with Woodman at CU, and his interest in pattern painting started back then. Some of Richert's newest pieces are the most Woodman-related, none more so than "U.W.W.," a three-dimensional linear pattern that weaves in and out.

A long time ago, Richert told me his desire to literally depict space is what made him interested in these arcane mathematical structures. These patterns, he said, filled or suggested space. Considering this, couldn't Richert be called a conceptual abstractionist? And wouldn't that be a direct corollary to conceptual realism, where I started this discussion? I think it would be, and I think that means a return of abstraction is just around the bend. Artists like Richert and Metier are smart to ignore the trends and to instead wait until what goes around comes around.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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