In its enormous set of galleries, Robischon Gallery typically puts together multiple individual shows that simultaneously function as stand-alone presentations and as one big, museum-style exhibition. The individual parts are conceived in such a way that they all flow together, with a thematic thread that’s not explicit but nonetheless apparent. Credit for conceiving and then realizing this relentlessly successful formula goes to gallery owners and husband and wife Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran, the latter of whom is among the best curators in Denver. And that means she's one of the best in all of Colorado, since the Mile High City is the unrivaled center of the state’s art scene and Robischon is its premier commercial venue.
The main front space currently contains Christian Rex van Minnen: Bloom, dominated by a series of pieces that are bizarre takeoffs on the floral paintings of the Dutch Masters. Though clearly related to van Minnen's signature approach, these are distinctly different. Over the past few years, the artist has won international renown for work that typically includes disturbingly realistic renditions of deformed and tattooed figures that are sometimes just this side of stomach-turning. Though such images are still a big part of these recent paintings at Robischon, they aren't the primary feature. And while a handful of wall sculptures delve into the topic of marked and malformed flesh, they do so less viscerally.
In all of the “Bloom” paintings, an elaborate and oversized flower arrangement is set against a recessive dark background of tabletop below and atmosphere above. Elaborate details are unique to each, though, presenting a mind-blowing variety of elements. Clearly a virtuoso with a brush, van Minnen is able to show different pictorial tactics side by side, with the paint always applied in flat, thin coats, doubtless facilitating his remarkably crisp and tightly done representations. In a representative painting such as “Parallax,” a clear glass vase is placed on a marble tabletop. Visible in the water in the vase is a fetus, and above is an arrangement of desiccated leaves and juicy blossoms; there are also what appear to be jellied candies and human skulls. Each item makes some kind of reference to pop culture or history, and each item has been depicted with a fanatical attention to detail. The formal calligraphy with which van Minnen signs his name gives the pantings a faux antiquarian quality.
There’s also something pointedly antique-looking about the pieces by Kiki Smith installed in the adjacent spaces. Smith's art is seen in important collections around the world; at Robischon, she's represented by works on paper and tapestries, all done in her signature representational style that, like van Minnen’s, refers back to art history, but with an added twist.
The etchings with aquatint and drypoint seem like a cross between the sensibilities of Albrecht Dürer and a storybook illustration. Views of imaginary flowers set in nature, they convey emotional content — especially the droopy ones. As compelling as these small works are, the undeniable stars of Kiki Smith are the monumental tapestries based on her more elaborately detailed colored drawings, which have an almost medieval and even religious quality. In “Earth,” a nude woman seems to be ascending above a tree of oversized clover leaves, with a snake rising next to and above her, and radiating beams of light behind. The delicate colors of the cotton thread heighten the idea that this is something of great age, though Smith’s pointedly awkward renderings push them into the contemporary realm. While the female nude is a frequent topic for Smith, this show includes a rare example of one of her male nudes: In the tapestry “Underground,” he’s been rendered as if he were in distress, essentially upside down and caught in a tangle of tree limbs or roots.
After all of this goth material, the pairing of Walter Robinson and Terry Maker in the back gallery provides a welcome break. Robinson is into being fun with funky. I loved his “Still Life (Nature Mort),” a wall installation that spells out its title in English while expressing the literal meaning of its French form with the imagery of death never far away. The “S” is done in boney twigs with found boxing gloves at the top and bottom, the two “Ls” with logs wearing socks and shoes. Also intriguing is “Tumbril, an enormous shopping cart-cum-covered wagon, its canvas top adorned with machine-made patches, its wheels with wooden spokes and rims. There’s a far-out, deconstructed-cabin quality to these pieces, and both compress nurture and nature in their materials and imagery.
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Maker's work is also fun, though it's elegant, while Robinson's is pointedly not. Although Smith may be the most famous artist in this set, Maker contributes the showstopper, an enormous sphere that fills a large chunk of the space. It's made of wood covered by inverted straw hats, their open crowns giving the sphere’s surface an all-over dimpling, like a whiffle ball. Though the hats are all the same model, their colors vary subtly according to the original color of the straw; Maker has placed them in such a way that they give the illusion of being a monochrome golden tan. Maker has sewn a brown sweatband into each readymade hat, encircling the crown; these sweatbands create a secondary all-over pattern of circles, after the open voids, within yet a third set in the form of the joined brims. The piece is stunning, both monumental and somehow insubstantial. Maker is one of the region's most imaginative artists, and her show here also includes one of her signature pieces, in which she embeds such materials as pressed documents and jawbreakers, then slices them into wall pieces that function like paintings.
Standing out in this eccentric company isn't easy, but Fred Stonehouse's truly weird paintings in the cozy Viewing Room gallery manage to. Stonehouse has developed a pseudo-folk-art visual language that he puts into psychological context by including unflattering self-portraits — sometimes demons, other times animals. These odd little self-portraits are often beset by hazards, such as the menacing bat in “Simple Strategies” that seems ready to attack the man who is partly submerged in a swamp. In “Limits of Desire," he’s a cloven-hoofed devil sitting in a circle of fire, surrounded by a vine dotted with flowers. There’s a real pathos to Stonehouse’s style that creates a sense of mystery: What are these pieces about? The artist has definitely found his own pointedly awkward visual language, and gives absolutely no quarter to beauty.
An ineffable quality, rather than anything concrete, connects these Robischon shows. In turn, the five artists employ the grotesque, lay out dreamy parables, arrange funny sight gags, share profundity through whimsy and, finally, are downright weird. Nothing truly unites them, except the way they effortlessly come together at the gallery.
Van Minnen, Smith, Robinson, Maker, Stonehouse, through November 9, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.