Art inspired by nature doesn't have to be a traditional representation of the landscape; instead, it can intimate the idea of flowers, trees and bushes, either abstractly or conceptually — not capturing their details, but evoking them in the viewer’s mind’s eye.
Walker Fine Art is up front about the theme of Enchanted Garden, a sprawling group show with pieces by eight artists, most of them part of the Colorado art scene. Bobbi Walker’s eponymous gallery is cavernous, allowing her to divide it into several discrete spaces. This is how how she can get away with including so many artists in a single display, and although each is represented by multiple works, the gallery doesn't look too crowded.
The show opens with conceptual pieces by Eileen Richardson, many of which incorporate twigs in some way. The centerpiece is “Echoscope #2,” an enormous kaleidoscope created from a log-like cylinder lined with angled mirrors and wrapped in willow twigs. It's interactive, with acrylic disks that are meant to be held and turned behind it to achieve the desired colliding visual effects. Dried flowers arranged in radiating circles are embedded within transparent cast resin on these disks; the floral rings allow the disks to transcend acting simply as parts of the kaleidoscope, turning them into standalone artworks of their own.
Other standouts are enigmatic paintings by Don Quade. Although these are signature Quades, in which he lays in a color field and then accents it with small elements, they are somewhat simpler and less cluttered than usual. Some of these tiny pictographs are little more than loops, while others take the form of recognizable things, including silhouettes of blossoms. Quade’s palette tends toward deep and saturated colors, typically delivered as dusty, giving the paintings an antiquarian quality. Though I think of Quade as referencing the Southwest, there’s also a decidedly Asian angle to these.
Most of the other artists in Enchanted Garden embrace flowers in some way. But a major component of the show, unifying the whole thing, is decidedly non-floral: monumental floor sculptures by Norman Epp. Taking the form of fluid spires in carved wood accented by metal, they convert the space into one big forest.
Enchanted Garden resonates well with a pair of solos at Michael Warren Contemporary: Brian Shields: Myths, Lyrics & Landscapes, with nature-inspired expressionist paintings, and Jeff Baldus: Scholar Rocks, a display of naturalistic sculptures and reliefs based on stumps.
Brian Shields’s pieces are wildly expressionistic, as though he attacked the canvas with brushes laden with brightly colored pigments and applied them in an explosion of physicality. Though the paintings appear to be non-objective compositions with riotous layers of marks applied next to, and over, one another, there seems to be some actual imagery, or at least the suggestion of it, in some, and that imagery hints at landscape views.
This oppositional duality, of being purely abstract and at the same time suggesting subject matter, is easiest to see in the fabulous “Four Season” paintings. Shields pulls off the combination principally through color: “Winter Feathers” is all icy blues and whites, while “Summer” is covered in watery blues and touches of hot shades, including orange and red. The compositions are also relatively dense, with “Spring” busting out all over, figuratively speaking, while “Autumn” is considerably more restrained. An arc runs through the quartet of paintings, from the sparseness of “Winter Feathers” to the abundance of “Summer,” with “Spring” and “Autumn” falling between.
Like the Epp sculptures at Walker, Jeff Baldus's pieces refer to trees, even if they are meant to conjure up Chinese “scholar stones,” character-full natural shapes valued for their contemplative qualities. For many of the sculptures, Baldus has cast rotted tree limbs in bronze; in a couple, he displays the found wooden shards themselves, having hardened the disintegrating chunks with liquefied rubber. The two bas reliefs are quite different, taking the form of meandering vine-like lines running across two walls. Though Baldus first did these in bronze, the resulting weight made them almost impossible to hang, so they were done in black rubber tubing with hidden wire armatures to establish their lyrical trajectories.
Two blocks from Michael Warren, at what had been Rule Gallery (now at 808 Santa Fe Drive) is Urban Mud, the new combination gallery and ceramics arts guild founded by longtime Denver artist and dealer Mary Mackey. The guild is a co-op of sorts that gives members the use of a clay workshop fitted out with wheels and kilns, along with the perk of an exhibit once a year in the gallery space. The inaugural exhibit, Judith Cohn: The Denver Years, is not given over to a member, though, but is instead a limited retrospective dedicated to an artist who used to work and show in town.
When Judith Cohn came to Denver in the early ’90s, she was already an accomplished ceramics artist with a sterling academic career, including stops at the two most significant institutions related to ceramics education, Cranbrook Academy and Alfred University. Though her stylistic course was set way before she came to Colorado, Cohn’s work fit right into the ceramics scene then. Her handling of painted decorations in her glazes resonated closely with the same feature in the contemporaneous work of the late Betty Woodman. And her formal ideas were not unlike those of Martha Daniels, in particular the way in which both artists use the malleability of clay to employ it as an expressive medium, free from the constraints of the wheel. Cohn left Denver ten years ago when the Rocky Mountain News closed; her husband, John Temple, had been the paper’s editor, and had taken a job out of town. With Woodman having passed and Daniels, like Cohn, now living in California, this whole scene is gone.
The works in the show are really impressive, and you immediately get the feeling that you’re walking into a garden, because on your right is a large installation of stiles from Cohn's “Trees” series. The artist comes out of the vessel tradition, the mainstream in ceramics, but she uses its concepts to make things other than vessels, like these stacked, enclosed volumes. Most are cylindrical, but a few are rectilinear; they are all untitled and have been done in three distinct sizes. Cohn hand-built them, then decorated them with abstract compositions. When I walked through the show with her, she told me that the reason she was drawn to working in clay in the first place was the way it could be used, and she employs it as a hybrid of sculpture and painting. Her work thus establishes both formal and pictorial languages, unified and compressed into the same pieces.
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We're all consumed with getting outdoors at this time of year, so it's a perfect time to see these particular summer shows. True, they're presented indoors, but they're inspired by the sights found out and about in the fresh air.
Enchanted Garden, through August 31, Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue #A, 303-355-8955, walkerfineart.com.
Brian Shields and Jeff Baldus, through August 24, Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-635-6255, michaelwarrencontemporary.com.
Judith Cohn, through August 30, Urban Mud, 530 Santa Fe, 720-271-9601, urban-mud.com.