Art Review

Solos Take Contemporary Painting and Sculpture in New Directions

Installation view of Sarah McKenzie: Sanctum.
Installation view of Sarah McKenzie: Sanctum. Courtesy of David B. Smith Gallery
Though politically charged installation pieces may seem to be taking over the art scene, contemporary painting and sculpture are still holding their own, as shown by strong solos at David B. Smith Gallery and Robischon Gallery.

At David B. Smith, the main gallery is filled with the quietly elegant Sarah McKenzie: Sanctum, showcasing paintings at the unlikely intersection of contemporary realism and post-minimalism. A well-established Boulder-based painter who has focused on conveying representational views of museum and gallery interiors over the past several years, McKenzie often incorporates works by others that happen to be on view in the depicted spaces.

Her process begins with preparatory studies: Visiting art venues around the world, McKenzie takes photographs of her surroundings and downloads them to her computer, using Photoshop to simplify and clarify the shots. She then prints up those she feels have the potential to be the basis of good composition for a painting. The photos are translated into elaborate pencil drawings applied directly to the canvas, with McKenzie employing rulers and mathematical equations in order to get the correct relationship between the various components of the selected scenes.

For McKenzie, exhibition spaces have an abstract character, so even though she is precisely rendering them based on external reality, she doesn’t see herself as a realist. And I understand what she means. From across the room, the McKenzies seem almost photographic in their representations — but up close, they are unexpectedly painterly, with the margins between the pictorial elements recalling hard-edged, non-objective painting more than photos. This is partly because the paintings begin as acrylics, then end up being partially done in oils, as McKenzie picks out details. The overall acrylic passages have a pristine flatness, while the oil accents are freer and more spontaneous, invariably adding the illusion of depth along with inherent perspective. McKenzie told me that she sees these contrasting pictorial qualities as significant to her work, and that's another reason these representational paintings can be considered abstractions.

Slotted into the Project Space at the back is David McDonald: Montello, a solo of idiosyncratic sculptures by the California-based artist. These highly expressionistic sculptures, made of Hydrocal, plaster, wood and other materials, most of them finished off with pigments, are pretty weird. Some look like freakish versions of food, maybe because they're on miniature tables, while others are vaguely figurative. The most striking things about all of them are their organically derived shapes and their self-effacing modesty, since several of the small works sit right on the floor. David McDonald is clearly looking to strike a blow against monumentality in sculpture, and I think he’s done it.

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Post-minimalist paintings by Deborah Zlotsky.
Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
More obviously abstract and post-minimal are the critiques of pattern painting in Deborah Zlotsky: Loopholes, at Robischon Gallery. The New York state-based Zlotsky creates overall compositions that relate to mazes or even labyrinths, orchestrating systems of painted bars so that they fit into one another. These woven or assembled lines are carried out in a palette rich with bold colors.

The bar patterns should appear to be right at the picture planes, because their compositions in the finished paintings almost function like super-graphics. But they don’t, for several reasons. There’s the suggestion of three-dimensional depth she’s added by filling in certain parts of the paintings — especially those spaces between the colored bars — with a rudimentary sense of perspective achieved through the use of diagonal lines. Helping work against the idea of flatness are the scuffed surfaces, which contain much more visual information than the initial impression the color bars reveal. There are scratches and drips and bits of paint in incongruous colors, and even little representational images hidden in plain sight here and there, all of which further pile on the references to depth. Through this complex orchestration, Zlotsky succeeds in creating pieces that are immediately engaging, owing to their emphatic formal qualities, and sustains that engagement by simultaneously deconstructing her forms with a range of expressionist flourishes.

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Ted Larsen sculptures in Stand Up, Buddha.
Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
Also having both an immediate and a contemplative appeal are the small sculptures in Ted Larsen: Stand Up, Buddha, which provides a counterpoint to the Zlotsky show at Robischon. A New Mexico artist, Larsen is known for his sculptures and installations made from cut-up pieces of salvaged metal, which typically still have their original painted finishes. This means that not only is his material being repurposed, but his palette is, too.

Though Larsen has done sculptures of various sizes, ranging from smallish to monumental, the ones here are all intimately scaled, almost the size of figurines, with most under a foot high. Contradicting this diminutiveness is the monumentality of their affect. The Larsens are built from rectangular boxes made out of the found-metal sheets, stacked on blocky wooden bases. The shallow boxes have been arranged both horizontally and vertically to take on shapes suggestive of ziggurats, stiles, totems and gate stanchions — those kinds of objects that imply ceremony and spiritual practices. The installation of these pieces at Robischon, where they're displayed on tall stands to bring them up to near eye level, gives the show the atmosphere of a sacred space, presumably one dedicated to Buddha.

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Pieces in Jonathan Parker: Sewn.
Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
The mood lightens up considerably in the back gallery with Jonathan Parker: Sewn. These paintings (or are they appliques?) have a midcentury-modern feeling. Using both dark and bright colors, set against lighter fields, the New Mexico artist explores the figure and ground relationship as found in classic abstract painting. Though some works here are like assembled puzzles of shapes, most are simple assemblies of just a handful of forms. To create this content, Parker employs acrylics and pencil, cutting out the components of his compositions only to then sew them onto beat-up and slightly marked-up canvas that he uses for the grounds. The arrangement of the forms suggests that Parker has an instinctual sense for composition, even though he’s sometimes using sewing machines to display it.

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A multi-part sculpture and works on paper by Scott Chamberlin.
Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
Scott Chamberlin: Sira, a fourth solo with just seven works, is installed in the small space adjacent to the office. Chamberlin is one of Colorado’s premier ceramics artists, and this show resonates well with Larsen's, at least in mood, even if the works possess entirely different types of appeal. Like Larsen's solo, Chamberlin's turns its room into something of a sacred space.

While a couple of Chamberlin’s wall-mounted sculptures that are reminiscent of faceless heads link directly back to the artist’s work of several years ago, other pieces seem to indicate a new direction. These are similarly featureless heads, but they've been rendered in the round and combined with constructed and found objects that are brought together into freestanding sculptures. They struck me as very surrealistic, particularly the blue head wearing a sombrero on the top of a spike coming out of an hourglass cage, arranged on a stepped stand made of wood. Adding to the allure of his work are the spectacular glaze effects, including a metallic gold covered with a fine skein of tight crackles, that show off Chamberlin's technical mastery of the medium.

Every year, David B. Smith and Robischon do their best to fight the winter doldrums with impressive solos by accomplished artists from not just Colorado, but around the country. And once again, they've succeeded with these shows.

Sarah McKenzie and David McDonald, through March 14, David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 #A Wazee Street, 303-893-4234,

Deborah Zlotsky, Ted Larsen, Jonathan Parker and Scott Chamberlin, through March 21, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788,
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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

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