The atmosphere around Robischon Gallery's latest offerings is magical

The visual arts in Denver reached an obvious high point in the fall of 2006, when the Denver Art Museum opened the Hamilton Building. But some runners up, date-wise, would have to include the following year, when MCA Denver moved into its new building, and last season, when the Clyfford Still Museum opened. But even in this heady context, the present season strikes me as unusually strong. True, there aren't any museums opening, but we do have a homemade blockbuster, Becoming Van Gogh, which opens Sunday.

See also: Photos: Installations and three dimensional art at Robischon Gallery

In a sense, this exhibit overshadows everything else, but there are plenty of other notable events worth paying attention to. Foremost among those is Frank Sampson: New Paintings, the inaugural show at the new Golden Triangle location of the Sandra Phillips Gallery. Then there's Walker Fine Art, which just celebrated ten years of being in the business of presenting interesting contemporary art shows. And finally, Mary Voelz Chandler, the longtime art and architecture writer at the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, was given the prestigious DAMKey award by the support group DAM Contemporaries for her outstanding contributions to the visual-arts community. Chandler was clearly moved by the heartfelt salutes from curator Gwen Chanzit and museum director Christoph Heinrich. I think I speak for everyone when I say that her always informative columns are sorely missed.

Now, on to the shows at hand. There's definitely been a buzz about Judy Pfaff at Robischon Gallery, a spectacular in-depth solo stretching into several of the exhibition rooms at the remarkably capacious venue. It is every bit as gorgeous as El Anatsui over at the DAM — and that's really saying something.

Installation art goes way back in the history of modernism, with several artists working in the medium as early as the 1920s — think Kurt Schwitters — but it wasn't until the '70s and '80s that it became a major art form. Pfaff, who received her MFA from Yale in 1973, was there on that ground floor, and was immediately recognized as one of the masters. She's also been a source of inspiration for many other artists attempting to fill spaces in novel ways, including onetime students Ann Hamilton and Jessica Stockholder, who both owe more than a little to their former teacher. Of course, there have been many others who didn't take her classes but were still struck by her example.

As the Robischon show unfolds, viewers in the front space are confronted by all-over abstract wall-relief sculptures that literally glow, due to the incorporation of fluorescent lights. The illuminating tubes are essentially hidden behind accumulations of honeycomb cardboard, expanded foam and all manner of plastics, much of it stretched into organic shapes. Many also incorporate ready-made Chinese lanterns, which work really well with the overall expressionist compositions.

The atmosphere these pieces create in the gallery is magical. One of Pfaff's most interesting gifts is the way she appears to be randomly assembling objects and yet is able to create compositions that are strong and coherent. And that's not because she's stumbled onto a formula in which everything takes on a similar form; instead, she employs her accomplished sense for composition in a wide range of unexpected and inventive ways. In "And to the Peacock — Beauty," it's a tight conglomeration of materials. In the nearby "My Second Dream," it's a dynamic horizontal. Some pieces, like "The Frightening Sound of Munch, Munch, Munch," seem to sprawl across the wall in complex and indescribable shapes.

These recent Pfaffs are part of a series meant to refer to the Sanskrit writings known as the Jataka Tales, which tell the stories of the many births of the Buddha. Given that Pfaff's best-known work is about space itself, Robischon registrar Debra Demosthenes has linked this work to "the culture of place" and has written that the series was inspired by Pfaff's travels to India, China and Japan.

This is Pfaff's fourth Robischon solo — I've seen all of them — and as great as the other three were, this one, with a little over a week left in its run, struck me as being not only the best of the lot, but by far the most important because of the obvious significance of the works included.

The Pfaff solo is bracketed by two others — a small show, Ana Maria Hernando, and a larger one, Katy Stone.

Hernando, who was born in Argentina, has lived in Boulder for a decade, and her signature two- and three-dimensional work is both abstract and conceptual. The show is installed in the cozy space that had been the Viewing Room but has now become a full-fledged gallery. The ten pieces that make up this show are all done in acrylic and ink on paper, and all feature a richly figured ground on top of which are abstractions of conventionalized and simplified flowers and plants. This is no surprise, as Hernando has written that her paintings unfold like flowers.

Though fairly small by contemporary-art standards, these works possess a level of charisma that makes the viewer stop and notice them. In the gorgeous "More Night, More Fire," Hernando has laid in a black and gray ground with all kinds of details, such as the vertical drips that fall in a fairly regular pattern from a horizontal line. And there's the cool shade of silvery gray employed to outline the leaf-like shapes used as a non-repeating pattern. These surround the centerpiece of the composition, the outline of a flower that has been carried out in strikingly contrasting tones of very hot red and orange.

The Stone show is installed on the other end of Robischon, in a large gallery in the back. The appeal of Stone's pieces lies in their quiet and contemplative beauty, and those characteristics provide a perfect chaser to the glitz of the Pfaff works and the strong graphic quality of most of the Hernandos.

The Stones on view can be split between her lyrical abstractions in acrylic on Duralar and incorporating paper collage elements, and her wall-mounted installations made of cut aluminum painted in monochromes in oil. Interestingly, though I've seen her pieces before, I had never connected Stone's paintings with her sculptures, but in this show it's clear that the shapes of the three-dimensional pieces can also be found in the paintings.

Make plans to see these three great shows immediately, as all are set to close in a little over a week.

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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