Shows at Havu and MCA Denver bring the abstract

Some art writers, including critics and commentators, have been trying to put abstraction in its grave for a generation. In fact, abstraction has been the butt of sneering invective from those who champion other aesthetic approaches since artists first embraced the style a hundred years ago — and it's come from both reactionaries and progressives, if you can imagine. But these multifarious campaigns have done little to dislodge abstraction from its lofty perch in the art world, both historically and in terms of contemporary art. I think there are several easy-to-understand reasons for this. First, artists have refused to stop doing abstract works. Second, gallery directors and curators have refused to exclude them from shows. Third, viewers flock to exhibits made up of them. And last, but hardly least, collectors keep buying them.

Abstraction's ongoing appeal can also be explained from a conceptual standpoint: It is about the visual, with paintings being about paint and sculptures being about the materials used to make them. It's so basic. There may be all kinds of added content, but the way an abstract piece looks is its chief component, not the subject or underlying narrative. That makes abstraction the perfect means to deliver a visual punch, and that is what art is really and most essentially about.

All of these thoughts went rushing through my mind as I entered the William Havu Gallery to take in a pair of solos being presented as a duet. On the walls are a series of downright juicy paintings that make up Monroe Hodder: Painting Metabolism!, while the elegant three-dimensional pieces comprised by Michael Clapper: New Sculptures are on the floor and on pedestals. Havu gallery director Nick Ryan remarked that this show is "museum quality," and though he laughed after he said it, he wasn't kidding.

Hodder is a relative newcomer to the Denver art scene, first showing her work here just a few years ago. But she's a veteran painter who launched her career decades ago in California. In 1983, she earned her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with the likes of Elizabeth Murray, Manuel Neri and Robert Colescott. For the past several years, she has maintained studios in London and Steamboat Springs.

Technically, her paintings are post-minimalist rather than neo-minimalist, because although they all have minimalist compositions — essentially stacks of stripes — they are executed in an expressionist way, and that's downright anti-minimalist.

Using knives and other tools, Hodder trowels on the paint, smearing the pigment onto the canvas and building up the stripes, layer by layer and color by color. This process ends up partially blotting out one color when the next one is applied, resulting in broken tones that sometimes run throughout the stripes. Hodder also allows the paint, in some cases, to run with drips that travel from one stripe to the one below it.

The stripes each have their own palettes, which are much narrower in range, having fewer shades than the broader group of hues in the specific painting they are a part of. It's as though Hodder has cut up a stack of abstract-expressionist paintings done in different colors and then laid out the fragments in an orderly arrangement, mostly a straightforward lineup of horizontal bars. At first it's easy to take in these works because of the simplicity of the striped composition; however, Hodder's distinctive techniques make for complicated passages of paint that provide an additional hook for viewers.

The Hodder paintings are all alike and yet all different, and we can tell they're new because they're off-gassing linseed-oil fumes, a familiar and unmistakable aroma that filled the gallery. I found the whole show to be inspiring.

Equally inspired was the idea to put Clapper's sculptures with them. The Clappers are completely different from the Hodders, though both artists look to simplicity as a touchstone. Clapper's sculptures are organically derived while the paintings are geometrically derived, yet the two bodies of work function beautifully together, occupying essentially the same space without competing with one another.

Clapper began as a designer and maker of art furniture, attending the Wendell Castle School in New York and receiving a Sam Maloof grant to work at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass. (Castle, for whom the school is named, and Maloof, for whom the grant is, are legends in the art-furniture scene.) Clapper settled in Colorado in the 1990s and launched his career, specializing in large public and residential work.

The Havu show includes only a handful of Clappers, but one of them, "Silencio," is a stunning tour de force. In the center is a squared-off vertical form rising over eight feet that's made of Colorado's own Yule marble. The form flares out at the top. The surface of the vertical column is articulated in several ways, including the geometric shapes at the bottom and, more notably, the organic lines that run around the piece near the top and give the illusion of the rock's having been slightly smashed. The other element of "Silencio" is a freestanding spiral of metal that surrounds it like a halo.

Hodder's paintings and Clapper's sculptures make for a breathtaking visual experience, and so does Barnaby Furnas: Floods, an exhibit of gigantic abstract paintings in the Large Works Gallery at MCA Denver. Furnas is a New York artist who earned his BFA at the School for Visual Arts in 1995 and his MFA from Columbia University in 2000. By that time, he was already exhibiting his work in the Big Apple.

A unique feature of Furnas's personal history is his early embrace of watercolors as his medium. The watercolor method has been out of fashion for fifty years or more and is almost exclusively used today by Sunday painters who typically depict fruit and flowers, so Furnas's decision to take it up was a courageous one. The paintings at MCA aren't watercolors, but Furnas points out that since they're acrylics, they're water-based and thus behave in some of the same ways.

Furnas became internationally known in the past few years for his representational works, some depicting pitched battles, with figures arrayed across the compositions. Though the paintings at MCA are all completely abstract — even if Furnas sees them as hypothetical landscapes — he continues to keep his figurative style open to future exploration, and he has not irrevocably turned to abstraction.

The MCA show is fairly small, just four pieces (counting the diptych as one), but the works themselves are fairly large, including "The Whale," which is thirty feet long and was painted on site, in the gallery — and with an audience, no less. To paint the enormous billboard-sized stretched canvas, which only took a few hours for Furnas and his assistants, paint was poured down from one end as the panel was moved to facilitate the flow of the liquefied pigments. When you look at the painting, it appears that the pigments have been poured from the upper right corner, with the forms of the colors seeming to cascade diagonally down. But the paint was actually poured in the exact opposite way, Furnas says, starting at the lower left corner. In this area, there's a sky-blue passage that was formed when clear water was poured onto the piece, driving the paint farther to the right and revealing the blue airbrushed under-painting.

The subject of these paintings is the end of the world. For Furnas, they record the unimaginable sights of a biblical apocalypse. On the other hand, there's more than a passing relationship with good old American abstract expressionism and its cousin, color-field painting. Students of art history will notice the similarities immediately, including the heroic scale, the non-objectivity of the pictures, and, of course, the poured method resulting in an automatist technique.

But despite all this, Furnas doesn't consider himself a neo-abstract expressionist or a neo-modernist, though either term would describe what he's doing. He sees the origins of his work as lying in the mists of pre-modernism, and he mentions his idols: Turner, which I get, and Gericault, which I really don't.

Barnaby Furnas at MCA Denver is sublime, and so, too, are Monroe Hodder and Michael Clapper at Havu. I guess I don't need to say it, but I will anyway: Despite the wishful thinking of some people, abstraction's obituary has not been written yet.

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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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