A main theme of 21st-century art has been the enhanced inclusion of women in the dialogue. Perhaps the most surprising manifestation of this newly energized campaign has been the rewriting of abstraction’s history. A generation ago, abstraction was seen to be dominated by macho sensibilities, regarded as linked to the patriarchy by ’70s feminists and therefore politically incorrect for women to embrace. What those feminists didn’t realize was that women were exploring abstraction all along. Underscoring the point with a red Sharpie was the rediscovery of Hilma af Klint, who worked in the early twentieth century and just may have been the very first abstract artist of the modern era.
Riding this wave of interest, gallery director Bill Havu and administrator Nick Ryan co-curated Women in Abstraction, tapping the William Havu Gallery’s stable of artists to fill out the gorgeous show. The exhibition design allows each of the painters to have her own space, with the single sculptor’s pieces displayed throughout on both levels, creating a trail through the sections given over to the other artists.
The celebration begins with all-over abstractions by Monroe Hodder, who used to live in Steamboat Springs; she now lives in New York but still maintains ties to Colorado. Hodder’s aesthetic approach has changed radically over the last dozen years. While she previously painted in a kind of expressionistic constructivism, using crude bars, stripes, squares and rectangles, a few years ago she blew up this strict formalism, and the architectonic structures that had been her signature compositional devices were thrown to the four winds.
The new work at Havu couldn’t be more different from Hodder's earlier pieces. In fact, they essentially checkmate them, replacing the clear organization of the older work with controlled chaos. The new paintings are made up of a profusion of skeins and running drips of colored paint going in all directions. These dribbles of color are set against a heavily mottled and complex ground. The ground sometimes almost conceals semi-hidden elements that don’t quite come through to the surfaces; while Hodder has written that there is imagery underneath these all-over abstractions, they have been almost completely overpainted. Hodder's taste for bold colors and her skill at juxtaposing combinations of unlikely shades create several eye-catching moments in this section.
In the window space to the right are mixed-media collages by Laura Wait. Like Hodder, she used to live in Colorado — Steamboat Springs — but is now based in Santa Fe. Wait covers panels with paper that may have found text on it, or pencil drawings and painted passages that she herself carried out. She then cuts the paper into rectangles and squares, reassembling it so that the positions of the text, drawing and paint have been changed. She goes in again after the paper bits have been attached, adding more paint and transparent glazes. The resulting paintings are crowded with lines and shapes so that every part is visually interesting, with almost too much to look at. Wait's invariable employment of light-colored grounds, with the words and shapes done mostly in black, give her paintings the appearance of graffiti on some old wall.
Beyond are paintings made by Boulder artist Amy Metier. These are classic Metiers, in which a representational subject — in particular, space — is suggested but never literally rendered, at least not in the top layer. In the majestic “Iteration,” black lines at the top center lay out an arching shape, but the big orange mass descending from the top left corner prevents it from reading as an arch...or does it? There’s an autumnal feeling to the palette dominated by that orange, but also including a bunch of yellows, white and green. The central tangle of brushwork gives the painting a sense of dynamism. Much more complex is the monumental “Hawthorn,” a six-foot-tall acrylic on canvas with a set of zigzagging lines in bright yellow that almost reads as a street umbrella. The painting struck me as an abstracted view of a city square.
In the nearby mezzanine is a suite of Metier's collages. These works on paper could almost have been done by a completely different artist; instead of a lot of active brush marks instinctively placed across the surface, Metier has done arrangements of bars and other rectilinear components made out of scraps of paper. Metier told me that these collages are meant to be in dialogue with, or to respond to, the work of Sean Scully, an Irish-born American artist, and she did them when she had a residency at the Ballinglen Foundation in Ireland.
In the area at the base of the grand staircase are several large paintings by Denver-area artist Margaret Pettee Olsen. With a background in printmaking, Pettee Olsen displays a taste for thin washes of paint, which suggest printer’s inks and give the paintings flat surfaces. So it’s interesting that her paintings feature the illusion of depth, which she conveys with geometric elements — specifically, sets of bars that seem to float right at the picture plane and therefore push back into imagined space the expressionist passages that otherwise cover the canvases from edge to edge.
In the striking and beautifully conceived “Value Scale,” she’s assembled an array of organic shapes in black in the ground. In some places they’ve been painted out with a lurid green, though the black still shows through. With lots of scribbles and drips and runs, the painting looks to have been done quickly, in a fury of activity. But then she introduces those bars, in this case set vertically over a broad smear of red. All of Pettee Olsen's paintings have an ethereal glow, almost glistening, resulting from her use of synthetic polymers and reflective paints.
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Upstairs is a display of paintings by an emerging Denver artist, Lola Montejo, who jumped from the alternative scene to Havu just a few months ago. While Montejo had been a student of Metier's, it’s clear that she has forged her own way. From a distance, the Montejos look like automatist action painting, in which the creation is the product of frenzied brushwork. Despite the instinctual sense for form, however, on closer inspection you see that the paint has been carefully applied, creating a smooth and level surface. This contradiction creates a tension in Montejo's paintings, like those bars versus smears in the Pettee Olsens. Another Montejo strength is her incredible skill at putting together a vast array of colors, with each different shade having the same level of saturation and value. Though some colors are painted on top of each other, none are stronger than the others.
Ceramic sculptures by Sheryl Zacharia, a former New Yorker who lives in Santa Fe, are displayed on pedestals and cabinets throughout the two levels of the gallery. Zacharia creates complex shapes that combine organic references and geometric ones. These complicated shapes are covered in linear decorations filled in with delicately colored glazes. The compositions of the decorated surfaces have been determined by the shape of the pieces and seem to be generated out of them: Arcing lines spring from the arcing profiles of the forms, and the straight lines respond to the straight edges.
Women in Abstraction is filled with vividly hued and eye-popping pieces. Though each of the six artists is doing her own thing, the work comes together as a coherent and singular experience.
Women in Abstraction, through July 27, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, williamhavugallery.com