Thoroughly Modern Painting

In the last thirty years, post-modernism, characterized by irony and self-consciousness, has made major inroads into the fine arts. For a while, the sensibility even managed to supplant modernism; more recently, street-level post-modernism has been expressed by the current retro craze in pop culture, especially in automotive design.

But off the street -- in architecture, design, fashion and painting -- modernism is back. Around the country, neomodernist painting of various stripes, representing both revivals and critiques of a variety of abstract styles from the mid- to late twentieth century, has been enjoying a clear increase in viewer, collector and critical interest. (Of course, the truth is that modernist abstraction never went away, even when it was thoroughly out of date in the 1980s.)

In Denver, many painters are following the path back to the light of modernism, and an astounding number of them are former protegés of a locally renowned master of geometric abstraction, Clark Richert, head of the painting department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. The list includes Bruce Price, Mary Ehrin, John Morrison, and newer-than-newcomers, Warren Kelly, Michael Chavez and Clay Magidson.

Richert's influential work can be seen at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art for the next four days, where he is one of the gang of five included in 5Abstract, a fabulous and long-running show that looks at abstract artists in Colorado who emerged in the 1950s and '60s ("Broad Strokes," January 24). The other four are Al Wynne, Bob Mangold, Bev Rosen and Dale Chisman.

The Richerts at MCA range in date from the 1970s to the present. All are based on mathematical systems applied to pattern and color, and all have a post-minimalist conceptual basis. It's this post-minimal way of thinking that Richert imparts to his students; they are encouraged to conceptualize along the same lines he does without imitating his work. Thus the current crop of Richert-influenced artists are linked by being late abstractionists, even though none of them makes pattern paintings of the sort Richert does.

Also on the list of noteworthy artists who've fallen under Richert's influence is Karen McClanahan, whose very first solo show, Karen McClanahan: New Paintings, just opened at the Cordell Taylor Gallery.

The paintings in this elegant exhibit are a direct outgrowth of those McClanahan displayed last winter in a spectacular group show at the Andenken Gallery, where she was paired with young up-and-coming sculptor Jonathan Stiles. Like those paintings, the ones at Cordell Taylor combine flat color fields and hard edges -- as expected in paintings of this type. But McClanahan also adds painterly passages and soft shapes, which is sort of unexpected.

If there's any difference between the earlier and later pieces, it's that the painterly-ness and the organic lines in the recent group are given greater prominence. But even this difference is subtle, so that the approach that McClanahan laid out earlier this year is not undermined, but reinforced.

McClanahan is interested in juxtaposing two kinds of visual space. The one she calls "architectural" space involves hard-edged color fields; the other, designated "figural" space, refers to the organic or quasi-organic shapes set against them. Her decision to call the color fields "architectural" is more than symbolically inspired, because the walls of buildings are the inspiration for them, while the natural shapes on the fields are inspired by the shadows objects cast on the walls. Interestingly, McClanahan uses taped edges to create the architectural spaces, but she hand-paints the edges of the figural shapes. "I tried to hand-paint the edges of both," she says, "but it just didn't work as well in the architectural spaces."

The paintings in this show are closely related to one another and look marvelous together. One of the first is "Medicine Red," an acrylic on a large vertical canvas. As suggested by the title, the painting is primarily red, which is carried out in several distinct shades and within several distinct color fields. In the top two-thirds of the painting, the red field is made up of modulated tones ranging from light to dark. Standing out against the ground is an elaborate, dead-white form that seems to sit on a trapezoidal black form. The white form has various curves that reverse on each other; above the black form and against the variegated red background, it evokes the silhouette of a vase of flowers on a table.

McClanahan says that in addition to the figure, leaves, flowers and plants, she's been looking at architectural moldings seen on old houses -- and, of course, the shadows they cast. Though she didn't intend it, the shapes she uses also are reminiscent of maps.

The red, white and black palette used for "Medicine Red" harks back to classic abstraction of the early to mid-twentieth century. McClanahan is conscious of this, stating that the modern masters have influenced her more than other contemporary painters. And like the abstract expressionists of the '50s and the minimalists of the '60s, she considers herself a formalist. "My paintings have an aesthetic that's based on classic modernism," she says. "Post-modern was an anti-aesthetic and is unconcerned with beauty. My paintings are about beauty; that's really what I think about when I'm working." This idea isn't far from the spirit of the old chestnut "art for art's sake," and McClanahan embraces that philosophy: "My paintings don't need to say something, they don't need to be about something. It's enough if they just look good." And if looking good is her goal, she's succeeded in just about every case.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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