Michael Warren Contemporary is a flagship venue in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, a swanky place in a modernized Victorian storefront that’s been an important art landmark over the past twenty years. Before Michael McClung and Warren Campbell opened their namesake art space four years ago, the building was home to the van Straaten Gallery and, before that, the Sandy Carson Gallery.
McClung and Campbell both came from the business world (Campbell is still part of it), and often traveled for work. When going solo to far-flung cities across the country, each would check out the contemporary galleries and museums they found, and when they vacationed together, they sought out contemporary exhibitions. This led to the idea of creating a gallery that would represent the artists whose work they liked, regardless of where they’d found them.
Just such finds make up West Coast Artists, a large group outing currently filling the front of the gallery with work by artists from California and the Pacific Northwest. But geography isn’t the only thing that links the participants selected for this show: McClung and Campbell focused mostly on those who do abstracts, or at least abstracted configurations.
The show opens with a very strong passage of works in which color plays an inordinately important role. In “Paint & Air,” by Melanie Rothschild, colored streaks in the form of acrylic brushstrokes are draped from a set of steel rods mounted in wall-hung brackets. The brushstrokes were made on a resistant surface and then lifted so that in their final form, they are nothing but elongated wads of paint with no supporting structure behind them.
Two other Rothschilds, “Fishnet” and “Delicat,” are also pretty cool, both roughly (though not actually) square, with swirls of paint seeming to erupt onto the surfaces. They resonate beautifully with two Raul de la Torre acrylic and embroidery works on canvas hanging nearby. In these, vertical bars of paint and yarn that take the shape of drips have been lined up horizontally. As the unusual approaches used in these pieces reveal, McClung and Campbell have a taste for alternative mediums, and that’s also seen in the William Loveless panels. The pattern paintings have been done with ink and watercolors on fields of dried white glue that look like plastic. Loveless creates rows of little circles, each a tiny roundel painting with its own arrangement of shapes within; the pop-art shades of the roundels stand out against the shiny white ground of the dried glue.
Abstracts predominate on the other side of the gallery, too, but the palettes have been toned down to earthy and naturalistic shades instead of the nail-polish tints preferred by the colorists. References to the landscape are evoked by one of the most ambitious — “Eddy,” by Mark Rediske. One panel of this monumental diptych has an atmospheric quality, the colors changing subtly as they run over the exaggerated length of the panel, with soft margins where one shade abuts another. The other panel is predominantly brown, with fine vertical lines and small blotches. Though the title indicates that the topic of the painting is water, with a blue slash near the bottom underscoring that, to me it read like a depiction of the evening sky. Other artists here who embrace a delicate, dream-like approach to abstraction include Jenene Nagy, Etsuko Ichikawa and Eva Bovenzi.
An obvious exception to the abstract tilt of West Coast Artists is Elizabeth Ferrill, whose works on paper are precise, hyperrealist views of streetscapes from her “Border Crossing” series. Ferrill employs the pochoir method of stenciling, using acrylic and gouache to create the look of watercolors.
In addition to the group show, Michael Warren is hosting a solo, White Whale: New Works by Thomas Müller. A Los Angeles-based artist who was born in South Africa and raised in Seattle, Müller is interested in temporality, language and objects, and all three appear in these installations. Impermanence is definitely a key component in the floor piece “the space between us is vast and unfathomable,” as is language. The sentence-length title is printed out across the floor, each letter done in cobalt-blue powder left in its loose state. If someone walked across it — which is likely, since the piece is next to the entry to the space — it would be completely destroyed. (After seeing it in early April, I asked McClung how it had survived First Friday; he said he’d cordoned off the entire back gallery to prevent people from entering.)
In another fragile Müller, “white whale,” the title has been spelled out using unusual porcelain and ceramic letters that look like they are crumbling in places, revealing internal structures. Müller uses ceramic materials that shrink at different rates in order to produce the cracked and broken-out parts of the letters. I imagine there’s a substantial failure rate with such an unpredictable process. While I wasn’t really sure what Müller was getting at with his ephemeral and precarious installations — in particular, the “faker” pieces on plinths — out of harm’s way, the materials he uses, especially the kiln-fired elements, are intriguing in their own right.
McClung tells me that he and Campbell plan to do more of these group and solo combinations, putting the larger shows in the expansive spaces up front and the solos in the back.
Just a block away on Santa Fe, Spark is hosting three solos by members: Bill Ballas: Works on Paper, Canvas and Board, Gary Manuel: Bears Repeating and Alicia Bailey’s This Time Is…. Ballas and Manuel decided to exhibit together, combining the east and west galleries into one big space where painter Ballas has taken over the walls and sculptor Manuel the floors. Though their works are totally unrelated — Ballas creates maze-like constructivist abstractions, while Manuel does sculptures in wood and metal that have the feel of furniture — they work well together. The Bailey show, in the tiny north gallery, spotlights her lyrical artist books that combine imagery and text.
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The offerings at Michael Warren and Spark are just a few of the visual attractions along Santa Fe, good examples of why this stretch was named Best Arts District in the 2018 Best of Denver. There’s always something worth seeing along this street...until the gentrifiers get here, anyway.
West Coast Artists and Thomas Müller, through May 5, Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-635-6255, michaelwarrencontemporary.com.
Bill Ballas, Gary Manuel and Alicia Bailey, through April 29, Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-889-2200, sparkgallery.com.