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Rebels With Causes

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Contemporary art has fractured into innumerable directions and styles since the 1970s, but the situation has never been as wildly pluralistic as it is today. For proof of this diversity, see three current shows at two very different local venues. But catch them while you can--they're all set to close this coming weekend.

At ILK's roughhewn main space on Santa Fe Drive, two painters and two sculptors have been brought together for a show simply titled Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Matt O'Neill, Jess Larson, Rebecca Vaughan. At the far spiffier Robischon Gallery on Wazee Street are two eponymous solo shows: paintings by well-known Coloradan Wes Hempel and a signature installation from Gary Emrich.

The atmosphere at ILK is best described as informal. Artwork, supplies and even rubbish (found objects, perhaps, in this context) clutter the place, which serves not only as a site for ILK co-op members and others to display their work, but also as studio space for the group. Fortunately, two handsome exhibition rooms have been hacked out of the mess.

For the current exhibit, ILK member Murphy, a painter, has invited friend and non-member O'Neill to join her for a presentation of compatible but distinct works in the south room; ILK member Vaughan, a sculptor, is paired with friend and non-member Larson for a similar two-person show in the north room. Murphy and O'Neill are connected to each other by their shared interest in the incorporation of multiple imagery into single works. Vaughan and Larson also create closely associated work, using their feminist beliefs to inform their conceptual sculptures.

It's hard to call Murphy, an ILK founder and longtime member of Edge who's been exhibiting her work for nearly a decade, an emerging artist. But these days she sure seems like one. Just in the past few months, prominent dealers and collectors have begun looking at her work seriously for the first time. Oddly, the secret to her recent success are the quirky and engaging multi-part paintings she's been doing for years. Using small, rigid panels, Murphy creates grids of tiny mixed-media paintings. In "Polygenesis," for example, she has grouped together nine little square paintings using nearly as many styles and palettes.

With works such as "Polygenesis," Murphy links herself to national trends in contemporary art. And that's also true of the oddball paintings created by her guest, O'Neill.

Of the four artists included in this show, O'Neill is by far the most established. He has a long track record of local exhibitions, and his work has been included in the Denver Art Museum's permanent collection. The recent paintings on display at ILK reflect O'Neill's continuing attempt to reconcile the fine arts with the low ones. These homages to classic modernism--or are they lampoons?--self-consciously place fragments of 1930s abstracts alongside 1960s muscle cars and jazzy furniture.

In "Primer Grey," an oil on linen painted this year (but dated 1978, apparently as part of the joke), O'Neill lays in a surrealist landscape, the land in a muddy brown, the sky in shades of yellow and green. Floating on the picture plane are a Dali-esque cluster of organic forms made up of displaced facial features--two eyes and a mouth. They're carried out in black and white and sit on a cartoonish pedestal in the style of Philip Guston. In a final act of stylistic looting, O'Neill throws in the kitchen sink by incorporating magazine photos of '60s Chevy convertibles. O'Neill has outrageously called this technique "decoupage"--rather than collage--to underscore his low-brow intentions. A childlike signature completes the pointedly nonsensical approach, which O'Neill has increasingly embraced in his recent paintings.

The mood over at the other end of the gallery is worlds apart. Whereas the paintings by Murphy and O'Neill are dark and crowded, the sculptures by Vaughan and Larson are light and fairly spare. Both Vaughan and Larson create wall-hung soft sculptures whose feminist themes are suggested by the use of "women's materials" such as yarn and cloth and "women's techniques" such as crocheting and sewing.

Vaughan has installed five pegs from which she has hung small organic forms, typically in pairs. These sculptures, according to the artist, are meant to be "cozies" for the glands of the body. (A cozy, explains the artist, is "a crocheted cover made to protect and ornament an object at rest.")

Vaughan doesn't indicate which cozies are meant to cover which glands; in fact, they all vaguely suggest the sex organs of both men and women. "A major part of this work has to do with sexuality, about harnessing one's sex and putting it out of sight or mind," says Vaughan. The limp crocheted sacks, mostly in red, white and yellow, are hung from long threads of yarn; the languorous effect, combined with the subtle sexual imagery, is more than a little unnerving.

Another crocheted piece by Vaughan was too big for the ILK space and so has been displayed outside. This is "Cozy," a bit of high concept for which Vaughan has taken hand-crocheted afghans and used them to cloak a van owned by artist Joe Miller. (Miller calls the vehicle "Gallery Van Go," since it serves as a mobile gallery when it's not in use as his wheels.) Part of the pleasure of viewing this work is the mental exercise of figuring out just how it fits into Vaughan's feminist mindset. Is "Cozy" a sheet-metal phallic symbol encased in a sheath that grandma might have made?

Fellow feminist Larson, who went to college in Colorado but now lives in her home state of Minnesota, also uses traditional women's materials to carry out untraditional works. For this show, she has made four meticulous sculptures in the form of girdles, using fancy sewing techniques and luxurious lingerie fabrics including pink and red satins and black lace. The girdle sculptures have been hung on metal brackets that stick out from wooden plaques on the wall. Though ladies' underwear may seem erotic to some, in Larson's hands these garments become objects of constraint--in that sense, they're not far removed from Vaughan's gland cozies.

Thankfully, adventurous work isn't just the domain of grubby alternative spaces like ILK--or vans like "Gallery Van Go." Heady fare is also being served up by Hempel and Emrich over at the Robischon Gallery, a LoDo flagship that serves as one of the region's most important venues for contemporary art.

Wes Hempel spotlights a recent batch of grandly conceived paintings by the talented Berthoud artist. Hempel is best known for his large paintings of houses floating above pastoral landscapes. A few of these appear here, but more remarkable are Hempel's paintings of men, some of which ape historical paintings. Like O'Neill, Hempel intentionally appropriates other peoples' styles, but instead of creating jarring juxtapositions, he prefers to unite his sources into a single cogent image.

This is clearly seen in several paintings that directly refer to art classics. Laudably, Hempel provides to those among us who care written annotations that explain the origins of his paintings. The oil on canvas "Stock Market Angel," for example, is based on Luigi Mussini's "Musica Sacra" of 1841. "Fatherhood," another oil on canvas, is based on Adolphe-William Bouguereau's 1878 painting "Charity." In both works, Hempel recasts the classical compositions, adding new elements in familiar poses--a soccer ball instead of a sphere, for instance--and painting all of it with photographic accuracy.

Though he dresses them up in old styles, Hempel's figures are clearly of our own time. And this lends a tension to the paintings that distinguishes them from the conservative neo-traditional work seen elsewhere around town. His precise technique is the perfect foil for his chosen subject matter, featuring crisply drawn figures and details painted with luminous pigments that have been finely applied in thin, even layers. The resulting surfaces are stunningly flat, shiny and seamless.

Hempel's marvelous paintings have been paired in Robischon's Artforms space with works from Emrich, who is known both for his work in video and for his use of photo-emulsion chemicals to transfer images onto unlikely surfaces. Emrich combines both interests in his installation "Image Conscious: Chung/Rembrandt/Elway."

Gary Emrich fills two of the gallery's walls with found objects that make references to Rembrandt. Bits of the famous artist's self-portrait appear, as do passages from his paintings that have been mechanically transferred onto pieces of paper, plates and paintbrushes. In the midst of all of this is a video loop (playing on a wall-mounted monitor) of media maven Connie Chung preparing a phony smile for a closeup--along with a video projection of quarterback John Elway's ever-changing profile.

"Image Conscious" is the latest in a long line of Emrich works that coherently explore the myriad relationships between art and the media. And as usual, there's his signature elegance--the result of all that mechanical reproduction in monochrome.

These shows at ILK and Robischon collectively describe the stylistic anarchy that reigns in contemporary art. And get used to the madness: It's a fact of art life that's not likely to be changing anytime soon--if at all.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Matt O'Neill, Jess Larson, Rebecca Vaughan, through June 14 at ILK, 554 Santa Fe Drive, 615-5725.

Wes Hempel and Gary Emrich, through June 14 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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