Over the past ten years, no institution has done as much to promote contemporary art by Colorado artists as the Arvada Center. That’s no coincidence; rather, it’s the result of a well-thought-out strategy cooked up by Collin Parson, the director of the Arvada Center’s galleries.
The spaces on the main floor, as well as additional spots on the second floor, make the Arvada Center the perfect spot for sweeping group shows, sometimes as many as three at the same time, giving plenty of local artists time in the spotlight. While I often love those exhibits, the best shows I’ve seen at the center have been epic solos that Parson has mounted in the formal galleries on the lower level. In 2008 he presented David Yust, in 2012 Robert Mangold, and now it’s Virginia Maitland. Each of these artists has been working in Colorado for fifty years; such an established career is a prerequisite for one of these full-tilt solos.
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Virginia Maitland Retrospective 1965 to the Present, co-curated by Parson and Kristin Bueb, is devoted to the work of the state’s best-known color-field painter. Parson and Bueb combed through hundreds of paintings to come up with the forty-some included. “It was so easy, because Virginia is so organized — unlike most other artists,” Parson says with a laugh. The show is presented in chronological order, with a separate gallery corresponding to each of the six decades she’s been painting so that you can effortlessly follow her forward trajectory, with a few tangents, as she expertly juggles wide swaths of bold color to come up with pure abstraction.
Maitland became interested in art as a child, and by the age of twelve was determined to be an artist. Living outside of Philadelphia, as a teenager she took classes at various schools in that city, including Moore College and the Tyler School of Art. For college, she chose the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (David Lynch was a PAFA classmate, and Maitland appeared in several of his student films, including The Grandmother, which is included in support materials for this show, along with a career timeline.)
I’ve been familiar with Maitland’s work for many years, but the Arvada exhibit includes several types of things I’d never seen before, notably paintings with recognizable subjects, some from early in her career, some much more recent. “You wouldn’t have seen this,” says Maitland, “because I haven’t shown it much before.” She’s pointing to an early painting in a magic-surrealist style, “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which has a female figure morphing into a horse, among other unlikely sights, against a dark, moody ground. Though the imagery is kind of psychedelic, Maitland says she wasn’t thinking about that when she did it — but then again, she was in the middle of that flower-power era and could have pulled its influence out of the air unconsciously.
This fantasy painting and others of different styles in the entry gallery were done when Maitland still lived in Philadelphia in the 1960s, before her spontaneous move to Colorado in 1970. She’d visited Boulder, fell in love with the town — and the nearby mountains — and relocated just a couple of years after she graduated from PAFA; she’s lived there ever since. It was only after she arrived in Colorado that she began developing her signature approach to picture-making, one that she’s adhered to, broadly speaking, right up to through her current work. According to Maitland, “the clear blue skies” above Boulder may have sparked this change in her aesthetic sensibilities.
The first of the great classic Maitlands — “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose,” “Aquamarine” and “Tao of Yellow” — were all done in the mid- to late 1970s, but they seem as contemporary today as they did then. Looking at these paintings, you might think that Maitland used brayers or stencils to produce the veils of colors that she’s piled up, but during this period, she simply poured paint onto the canvases while moving them to direct the flow to where she wanted it: Those edges are actually the edges of the pours. The idea of pouring paint comes out of abstract expressionism — specifically, the work of Helen Frankenthaler — but Maitland was completely unaware of this when she developed her personal pouring method. “I really didn’t know anything about Helen Frankenthaler until people told me about her after seeing my paintings,” Maitland says. The work of the 1980s followed closely on those first color fields, but the compositions became more organized, as seen in the grid of squarish forms in “End Game” and the stripe across the center in “Two Against One.” They’re practically minimalist.
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The paintings of the ’90s, though still having roots in the classic color fields, are much more expressionistic, with spattered paint adding a lot of baroque detailing to the compositions. And some of those from the first decade of the 21st century go even further afield from Maitland’s characteristic approach, with the inclusion of photo transfers of views, including a church yard, floating in the abstract grounds.
Seeing Maitland drift away from what she had done earlier on sets up something of a revelation in the last gallery, where her most recent pieces make it appear that she’s picked up her practice precisely where she’d left it in the 1980s to pursue other aesthetic goals. Because of this surprising twist in the narrative of Maitland’s oeuvre, there was discussion of calling the show Full Circle. Still, these newer paintings differ from the earlier ones in technique; though Maitland still pours paint, she also uses brushes to reinforce the shapes. In the brand-new “Breaking the Surface,” for example, she arranges rough-hewn color wedges in rich blues and deep violets, with a streak of yellow going up the middle. It’s sensational, and shows Maitland still at the top of her game.
As is the Arvada Center, with this marquee attraction of this fall’s very strong exhibition schedule.
Virginia Maitland Retrospective 1965 to the Present, through November 11, Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 303-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.