Robischon Gallery's four new exhibits take a fantastical break from reality

Entering the Robischon Gallery right now is like walking through the looking glass, so to speak. Inside are four shows, each of which posits the existence of a fantastic faux reality expressing individual parallel worlds.

Creepy and weird — not to mention accomplished and elegant — are just some of the descriptive words that could be applied to Kahn + Selesnick: Truppe Fledermaus & the Carnival at the End of the World, an enormous presentation by New York-based collaborators Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick. The dark mood of the show is immediately set by the seventy-plus works on paper that cover the long, tall wall on the left. Clustered salon-style, the pieces, in the form of banners, posters and prints, express references to a range of styles that flourished between the 1890s and the 1930s, including circus folk art, German expressionism and Bauhaus modernism. These works are advertisements of sorts, announcing imaginary plays, festivals and carnivals that were never meant to be presented.

See also: Photos: Four exhibits at Robischon Gallery take on alternative realities

Across from that group is another installation, this one comprising thirty antique-looking photos with arched tops, à la Victorian pieces. They depict preposterous portraits of men covered in greenery, in boats, surrounded by mechanisms, and on and on. The juxtaposition of old-fashioned sensibilities and absurd subjects gives the works a decidedly contemporary feel.

The final phase of the show is in a small gallery that connects the main space to the adjacent spaces beyond. The bat — or fledermaus — is a key topic in the paper installation at the beginning of the show, and this section picks up on that theme in works on paper and in five terra-cotta sculptures of bat heads. The overall forms of the sculptures are grotesque and disturbing. Expressively conveying the creatures with lumps and hollows of clay, Kahn + Selesnick have finished them in a dull black created by a beeswax finish. The busts are lined up on a narrow L-shaped plinth, and viewers are invited to carefully insert their hands into a hole at the back of each one. This triggers an action-activated blue light that illuminates a miniature scene inside the heads of the bats. They are definitely engaging, even unforgettable, if also extremely weird.

Those adjectives could also describe Christian Rex van Minnen: Welsh Rats, which is installed in the next set of spaces. Now living in New York, van Minnen has a raft of Colorado connections, having earned his MA at Regis University and completed a residency at Anderson Ranch near Aspen.

This show marks his first solo at Robischon, and the enigmatic title, Welsh Rats, is meant to refer to a mispronunciation of weltschmerz, which means "world hurt" or "world pain" and was a concept associated with German romanticism. The paintings themselves, though, seem more reflective of the Dutch masters crossed with representational surrealism, not unlike the way that Francis Bacon used Spanish baroque with surrealism. These van Minnen oils on paper, panel and linen have been meticulously painted, but what, precisely, is being depicted is a little hard to say. In "Weltschmerz" — which is sort of the title painting — he has rendered the stem of a plant with a bud emerging from it. But the bud is made up of what look like exploding body parts or organs out of which vegetal forms emerge.

Some of the paintings are even more disturbing: In "Camp," van Minnen has created a beautiful still life of flowers and fruits but has inserted tattooed body parts, clearly referring to the Holocaust. I shuddered when I saw it.

One thing about van Minnen's work is obvious: He has no interest in being decorative, because these paintings are as in-your-face as possible, so much so that you might need to look away from the horrors he imagines or recalls.

The mood lightens a bit with Terry Maker: Circumference, which comprises a small set of pop-ish installations by this well-known Colorado artist. Interested in using the mundane to express the exceptional, Maker has created gigantic belts made of resin hung from enormous nails. Things of this sort were shown earlier at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center as part of her major exhibit, Reckoning. The belts are within a representational current that runs through her mostly abstract ouevre.

The oversized nails and long belts are beautifully conveyed. The silver-colored metal nails are shiny, and so are the belts, which have been done in expertly formed resin. It's amazing how she gets the stripes so straight. To complete the illusion of belts, Maker has crafted buckles and grommet-lined holes. Most of the belts are adorned with different elements. In one, it's those giant jawbreakers she used to such great effect for years in all kinds of work; in others, it's plastic eyeballs or a bandolier of bullets.

The final show, Jeff Starr: Smile, is something of an abbreviated career survey for the longtime Denver artist, and makes a great capper to the other three.

Though it is made up of individual paintings and ceramic sculptures, the exhibit has been conceived of as an installation, like the Kahn + Selesnick display. Upon entering, viewers will see mid-sized sculptures depicting storybook animals and scenes that have been artfully arranged on stands. In "El Pato," it's Donald Duck — sort of. The nice modeling of the clay with its vague details works beautifully with the gorgeous dark glaze. Also intriguing is "Rustic Tableau," done in painted ceramic. It's a whimsical rendition of a tree stump; behind it is a modest painting of the same subject on the back wall.

That back wall includes a hieratic arrangement of paintings in various styles, anchored in the center by the large realist painting "Bee Beard," which straightforwardly depicts a man whose face is covered with bees in the shape of a beard. In addition to the realism of "Bee Beard" and the magic-realist quality of the storybook pieces, there are at least two other kinds of paintings. There are the dystopian environments of houses, which strike me as coming right out of the pointedly naive pieces, and neo-pop-style paintings based on album covers and magazine images. It's a wide range of interests, but installed the way it is, with different types of things hung cheek to cheek, it somehow all makes sense.

These alternative realities at Robischon, conjured up by the participating artists, are all off-kilter in individually distinctive ways. That makes it all the more amazing that the four shows work so well together as we are led from one fantasy — or would that be nightmare? — to another.

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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