David Mazza sculpture with Ben Strawn paintings at Walker Fine Art.
David Mazza sculpture with Ben Strawn paintings at Walker Fine Art.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art

Review: Take a Summer Trip Through Colorado Art at Walker, Sandra Phillips

Summer used to be the time when galleries kicked back and presented thrown-together shows of stock from the back room. No longer. Now summer is as crowded with worthwhile exhibitions as any other time of the year (except for fall, which is still high season in the art world). Right now, Walker Fine Art has a group show of mostly Colorado artists that resonates beautifully with an intriguing solo at Sandra Phillips Gallery devoted to a legend in this state’s art history.

In A Conscious Surrender at Walker, director Bobbi Walker has assembled recent works by a sculptor and five painters, each exploring a different approach to expressionist abstraction. Sculptor David Mazza is represented by only three pieces, all untitled and all from a singularly coherent body of work. But despite their small number, these sculptures play a major role in the show: They’re pretty large, and placed so that they run through the gallery’s spaces, with one up front, one in the middle, and one in the back. Mazza is among Denver’s best young sculptors, known for his linear steel compositions. These latest pieces, mostly made from rusting steel rods and welded constructions, struck me as being somewhat different for him, at least in their details. While still signature Mazzas that contrast the expanses of rusted metal with passages of highly polished stainless steel, they also incorporate geometric solids that include beefy cylinders and rectangles. That’s a perceptible change, and the results are great.

"Orbital Oscillation," by Anna Charney, paint on canvas, wall and floor.
"Orbital Oscillation," by Anna Charney, paint on canvas, wall and floor.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art

Anna Charney’s “Orbital Oscillation” looks like it could be a remote entry in the Arvada Center’s current mural show. Charney, who’s done a number of outdoor murals around Denver, has a readily identifiable style in which larger forms composed out of complex patterns of smaller repeated shapes move in and out of one another. The density of these patterns and their continual morphing make the works fanatically complex. “Orbital Oscillation” is a good example: The whirling composition of intertwined spirals in blues and blacks on white not only climbs the two-story atrium wall, but rises off it, too, with tondos affixed to the surface. Lost in the patterns, the tondos are almost invisible.

Paintings by Deidra Adams at Walker Fine Art.
Paintings by Deidra Adams at Walker Fine Art.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art

More patterns cover the paintings by Denver’s Deidre Adams, with layers of dense markings, scribbles and webs of what resemble prehistoric glyphs creating all-over abstractions. In her statement, Adams says that she considers her work non-objective, yet she also believes that the markings introduce historic, biological, physical and cosmic content; she subtly introduces narrative content without literally referring to anything. Adams also considers her laborious process an important feature of her paintings, and I can see what she means: The amount of brushwork is dizzying.

Beyond the Adams paintings is a gallery where Denver abstractionist Carol Browning is paired with Sara Pittman, an artist from South Carolina who’s the only out-of-stater in the show. Browning’s paintings are atmospheric, with forms that have soft and indefinite margins, like clouds. They provide the perfect complement to the Pittmans, which are vaporous. Like Adams, Browning and Pittman both consider their individual and instinctively guided processes as covert themes in their paintings.

Salida’s Ben Strawn is given the most wall space, filling two exhibition areas. Strawn’s style is to assemble big shapes of bright colors like a loose puzzle. In his artist statement, he says he doesn’t consider his work to be abstract, since he is not abstracting recognizable things, but simply creating and arranging shapes based on his own spontaneous gestures. He sees his work as akin to a spiritual quest, making visual objects based on physical action and consciousness. The resulting paintings are lyrical and bold, sometimes having a graphic quality in which simple forms stand out from the rest, as the lettering on a poster would.

"Winter Constellation" and "Geos," by Mel Strawn.
"Winter Constellation" and "Geos," by Mel Strawn.
Courtesy of Sandra Phillips Gallery

Strawn traces his work back to his childhood, when his parents, Bernice Strawn and Mel Strawn, would talk incessantly about color and line. Both are well-established Colorado artists who’ve had long and illustrious careers, and Ben Strawn is part of an intergenerational art dynasty. In a happy coincidence, just a few blocks away from Walker Fine Art, Mel Strawn is the subject of an intimate solo, Mel Strawn: Alternatives, at Sandra Phillips Gallery. The elder Strawn came to Colorado in the late ’60s, when he succeeded Vance Kirkland as head of the art department at the University of Denver. Strawn stayed at DU into the 1980s, then left the state for a time before he and Bernice retired to Salida.

“Red Shift,” by Mel Strawn.
“Red Shift,” by Mel Strawn.
Courtesy of Mel Strawn

The show is not a retrospective, since the gallery is too small for such a project, but it does showcase pieces from different periods. Among the earlier standouts are two pattern paintings, “Geos,” from the 1970s, and “Negentropy,” from the 1980s. Interestingly, Colorado was a center for pattern painting at that time, but Strawn’s works are distinctly different from those of others in that scene, both because he stacks patterns and because he did not use masking, so his shapes have wavering edges instead of hard ones. Another noteworthy painting, this one done a little over ten years ago, is the enormous horizontal abstraction “Red Shift,” in which broad reddish and gray brushstrokes radiate from various points across the picture plane, covering the entire piece. These long strokes are accented by roughly drawn yet tightly rendered geometric shapes that have been done in contrasting colors, including green, yellow and blue.

Strawn, who is nearly ninety, is still creating art. In recent years, he’s gotten interested in solar prints, a proto-photographic process that uses sunlight for processing, resulting in pieces that look more like drawings than photos. His art-filled life is definitely worth exploring, as is the excellent show at the nearby Walker Fine Art.

A Conscious Surrender, through September 8, Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue, #A, 303-355-8955, walkerfineart.com.

Mel Strawn, through September 8, Sandra Phillips Gallery, 47 West 11th Avenue, 303-931-2991, thesandraphillipsgallery.com.

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