There's natural beauty in the abstract work of these four artists

The idea of basing art on things found in nature has had many adherents over the centuries and today manifests itself in a wide array of approaches, from straight-up depictions of the landscape to abstracts made up of organically inspired shapes.

The latter style is found in two good-looking solos at Robischon Gallery: Trine Bumiller: The Blue Hour and Reed Danziger: New and Recent Work. Bumiller is a well-known Denver painter, while Danziger works in the Bay Area.

The Blue Hour in the title refers to a series of paintings that convey the twilight, which is neither light nor dark, and Bumiller sets an atmospheric quality with color alone, notably lots of deep and luxurious blues. The shades are luminous, the result of Bumiller's having laid them on in multiple thin coats using both pigments and glazes.

These paintings dominate the show (though there are pieces on view that aren't part of that group) and mark both a continuation of Bumiller's signature approach and a slight break from it. As usual, she has created single works by assembling variously sized rectangular panels that have been painted separately with separate images on them; the panels are then put together to form an asymmetrical constructivist pattern. The difference with these new pieces is that some of them struck me as being more representational than most of her earlier works.

In fact, most of these paintings, including "Everything Turns to Blue" and "Genius Loci," include literal subjects: depictions of bare trees against a glowing sky. But other "Blue Hour" works, such as "Landscape and Memory" and "Thrum," don't reveal this representational bent, and they are my favorites. While there are references to the trees, they've been combined with other images or obscured and deconstructed.

The Danziger show is very compatible with Bumiller's because Danziger has also done abstractions that conjure up the natural world. Although her works don't have literal references to the landscape in them, they undoubtedly include organically inspired elements and tend to have compositions that converge along a roughly horizontal orientation — just as a traditional landscape does.

On a white-paper ground, Danziger scribbles in a drawing. She then repeatedly re-addresses the imagery with subsequent drawings on top of that one, one after another. The finished drawings emerge automatically, as one layer of images guides Danziger in doing the next. She works in a range of mark-making mediums, including pencil, powdered graphite and watercolor washes.

The results are delicate in appearance, a characteristic conveyed by the dense skeins of fine lines, and this insubstantiality is further enhanced by the visible folds in the papers on which the drawings were done. One other remarkable feature of these pieces is the way Danziger balances the elaborate detailing of the crowded, overworked main image — which is crammed with a dizzying array of shapes, gesture marks and piles of dots — with the light-colored, nearly blank grounds on which they rest. So her compositions are inherently contradictory, being simultaneously busy and spare.

The Bumiller and Danziger pairing brought to mind another powerful duet, this one at Rule Gallery. The two solos here also feature contemporary work that's informed by the influence of nature. In the front space is Barbara Takenaga: Fade Away & Radiate, a nice selection of abstracts by a New York artist who lived for many years in Colorado. In the back room is Mary Ehrin: Rockspace, an installation by a noted Colorado conceptualist.

Takenaga is a dot painter. Using repeated ovoid forms, she creates elaborate compositions that have a cosmic feeling, as though we're looking at the universe, with its rigid ordering of physical forces. These ovoid shapes are organized like whirling galaxies in outer space, and the compositions typically radiate out of the center of the pictures. The dots are often made up of multiple dots that function as individual ones. Takenaga applies one dot on top of another and arranges them so that their sizes diminish as they rise to the top of the stack, creating halos or rings around the small central dots.

The dots may also bring to mind op art from the '60s and '70s, but Takenaga has a different aim in mind, because as tightly composed as her paintings are, they don't seem to vibrate or wave, the way classic op art does. Eliminating that approach would inevitably lead to pattern painting, and that's more properly the category where her work belongs.

The gallery irreverently describes Takenaga's paintings as being "trippy outer space explosions." This odd reference helps me make my next point, which is that there is definitely a relationship between Takenaga's "trippy outer space explosions" and those dot paintings of the universe done by the late Vance Kirkland, which could be described using exactly those same words. I'd love to see a show pairing the two.

And the Kirkland association isn't so far-fetched given Takenaga's long-term connection to Colorado. She earned her BFA and MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and taught for a time at the University of Denver. I first became aware of her work when I saw it in the Decades/Remix combination show at the old MCA in 2006. Decades/Remix was a major effort curated by Cydney Payton that was intended to chronicle Colorado art since 1985 with more than 100 worthy artists included.

Coincidentally, Ehrin, the other artist with a solo at Rule, was also in Decades/Remix, though I'd seen her work back in the late '90s, when she was "painting" with feathers — by which I mean covering the surfaces of canvases with strings of marabou feathers dyed in outrageously rich colors like deep purple and bright red. Her piece in Decades/Remix was made up of gold-leafed coral samples and more closely anticipates her Rockspace show at Rule than do the feather paintings.

At Rule, Ehrin designed a lattice screen divider made of wooden boards to separate her show from Takenaga's. Once within Rockspace, the mood heightens the sci-fi feeling expressed by Takenaga. On a series of low slab tables covered in white laminate that Ehrin designed are rock-like sculptures in spare arrangements. Taken as a whole, Rockspace looks like part of a set for Star Trek.

The rock sculptures are really interesting. Ehrin has acquired fake rocks used in dioramas and theatrical settings and then had them upholstered in luxurious materials, particularly leathers in fancy finishes. The results are pretty compelling. In order to conform to the shape of the fake rocks, the leathers have been cut into pieces that mimic the rocks' simulated contours. The separate pieces are stitched together like shoes or purses; this detailing is intriguing and eye-catching. I liked a lot of them, but one, "Gold Hobo Dubai Rock," covered in leather festooned with bangles, is unforgettable.

In addition, Ehrin placed some of the upholstered rocks in natural settings and had them photographed by Andrew Durham. The show includes a trio of these Durham photos.

Takenaga and Ehrin at Rule make for an interesting combination of shows, as do Bumiller and Danziger at Robischon. All four offerings close soon.

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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