Summer Vocations

For many years, the exhibition calendar in the art world featured a preordained hierarchy of shows. In the fall, galleries, museums and other venues presented their most important events. Then, special exhibits launched the winter holiday season. The spring and summer were traditionally the times when the art world would go on automatic pilot while curators and directors focused on plans for the upcoming fall and winter seasons.

In the last couple of years--around here, anyway--this well-established pattern has begun to come apart. Not that the season isn't still launched in the fall--it is, and the holidays are still a time to see appropriately glittering shows. Lately, though, the spring has brought with it not a lull in the art world but a second wind, with exhibition spaces whipping up important shows everywhere. And this year the great shows have sailed on right through the summer.

One of the best of the current crop is the loosely organized group show Implied Nature at that LoDo flagship, the Robischon Gallery. To create this show, gallery directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Duran chose from artists in their stable who combine abstract elements with recognizable ones. Some of the work has been reprised from earlier Robischon exhibits; other pieces are from artists new to the gallery. The show also mixes things up geographically, placing local artists cheek-by-jowl with out-of-towners.

Some of the artists come from way out of town--places like China and Germany. But it's a hometown artist long associated with Robischon who first commands our attention. Robischon's front gallery is dominated by Denverite Trine Bumiller's gigantic triptych oil painting "Heaven and Earth." The painting shows off Bumiller's expert application of lacquer glazes, a traditional technique she learned in Italy. The glazes make her paintings shine as though they are still wet.

In "Heaven and Earth," Bumiller has laid out a cross-section of the natural world. The bottom panel is dark brown, with lighter-brown lines evocative of roots. The middle panel reverses the colors, with dark brown lines on a creamy light-brown ground suggestive of twigs. The top panel is painted dark blueish-black, with white dots reminiscent of stars. Despite these easy-to-read references, however, "Heaven and Earth" functions as a thoroughly abstract painting.

Another beautiful work with forms that suggest but do not spell out recognizable objects is "Schlafverbindungen," by Udo Noger, a German artist who has made a part-time home in Parker for the last several years. The painting, which features an extremely limited palette of black, cream, and a pale, cool chartreuse, has a quieter appeal than we might expect from the former neo-expressionist. Equally compelling are Noger's four small oil, acrylic and charcoal-on-paper works, which, like "Schlafverbindungen," offer a simple yet elegant palette.

Providing a nice complement to Noger's work is the small and modest "Grace," an acrylic on paper with collage elements by northern Colorado-based modernist Mark Villarreal. "Grace," which sets smears and streaks of gray and beige against white paper, marks the first time in several years that Villarreal's work has been seen in these parts. That's a real pity, since he's one of the finest abstract artists in the region. And though this little piece shows off Villarreal's always-right-on sense for formal arrangement, it hardly satisfies our pent-up expectations after the artist's long hiatus.

Robischon throws the viewer a curve when it comes to another Colorado artist showing in the front space at Robischon. Rather than displaying a signature ceramic sculpture from internationally known Aspenite Brad Miller, the gallery presents a Miller wall relief made of wood. "Duo #2" is an assemblage of cut twigs that have been screwed together in a shape roughly comparable to an inverted pear. Miller's simple shapes, which he creates in ceramic, wood and stone, have a way of looking natural without ever making direct references to things found in nature.

The middle room at Robischon has been subdivided into several smaller spaces; in this newly reconfigured space, the viewer encounters Chinese painter Julia Nee Chu, an artist new to both the area and the gallery. In the oil on canvas "Recurrence II," Chu embraces a classic American style: 1950s abstract expressionism. The best thing about this vertical panel is the lively surface, which Chu achieved by dripping and pouring white paint over a dense ground of black and gray.

Nearby is another painting that recalls old modern art: "Heartland," an oil on canvas by New Mexico master Sam Scott. An old hand, Scott is scheduled for a thirty-year retrospective next year at Santa Fe's Museum of the Fine Arts. Unlike Chu, though, he's paying homage not to abstract expressionism but to neo-impressionism. Theoreticallly, the latter style features more recognizable subject matter. The viewer may be forgiven for not noticing, however, because in Scott's case, the distinction is very subtle. It's hard to see paintings like "Heartland" the way Scott describes them--as landscapes. Scott piles on a dense array of lines and shapes that only at times suggest plants and roads. But it hardly matters, since his apparent aim is to obscure rather than illuminate the details of his landscapes.

The same tendency is obvious in another Scott painting that shows up in the Artforms space at Robischon. "Dew," an oil on canvas, is characterized by the artist's typical combination of lines and shapes set on a light-colored field. The landscape lurking within is easier to see than the one in "Heartland"--but not too much.

More unabashedly abstract--predictable given his place in the development of the abstract-expressionist movement--are two lithographs by another old hand, the late Robert Motherwell. Both pieces were included in the Robischon solo show devoted to the artist last fall. In one of them, "Black Cathedral," Motherwell has placed a black pointed arch against the white paper; on either side and across the top and bottom are strips of multi-hued golden yellow. On the right stands a broken stripe of red. "Black Cathedral" demonstrates why Motherwell is as well-remembered in death as he was during his life.

Taking a decidedly different tack than either Scott or Motherwell is renowned Montana artist John Buck. He is represented by one of the few sculptures included in the show, "Wichita Beach," which is made of wood painted with acrylics. The piece is pure Buck, featuring one of his characteristic figures surmounted by a balanced but asymmetrical arrangement of forms in lieu of a head.

Another notable 3-D piece shows up in Robischon's back area. In the mixed-media installation "Illumination," by Denver artist Terry Maker, an old-fashioned light fixture has been mounted high on the wall, encrusted with a material that looks like mud. "Illumination" is striking, but one can't help thinking it would have been better had Maker left the light fixture as she found it instead of covering it up.

Also highlighting the back area are the prints by New York-based artist Judy Pfaff, who first came to fame in the 1970s with elaborate installations presented in SoHo. Pfaff is represented this time around by prints that combine etching and lithography. Her installations were known for their dense layers of objects punctuated by dashes of bright colors, and the new print "Heartfelt" successfully translates that style onto paper. Clusters of black ovals are set against rows of vertical script; these in turn are set against a yellow ground whose hues range from gold to a bright taxicab shade. In a word, "Heartfelt" is gorgeous.

There are only a handful of galleries in Colorado that could pull from their regular fare and come up with an extraordinary show like Implied Nature. Surely it's no surprise to find Robischon on that short list.

Implied Nature, through August 3 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 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