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Xi Zhang and Out Figured shows provide strong counter-currents to abstraction

In the annals of the Denver art world, the 2011-2012 season will go down as the year of Clyfford Still. The Clyfford Still Museum opened in November, and many museums and galleries presented shows highlighting the artist's influence or abstraction in general in order to honor Still's signature approach.

But in the past few months, a strong countercurrent of exhibits featuring representational imagery — in particular depictions of the figure — has appeared. An example is the small but strong 11 Ceremonies: New Paintings by Xi Zhang at Plus Gallery. The show comprises recent paintings by this young Colorado artist who originally hails from China. Zhang studied at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where he received his BFA in 2008, and then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned an MFA. With contemporary Chinese art being one of the hottest topics of the early 21st century, it's great to have a hometown player like Zhang in the mix.

The paintings in 11 Ceremonies have an ambitious quality from several perspectives, including technique, subject matter and, most important, a kind of visual charisma. This final characteristic makes Zhang's works seem more monumental than they actually are — though they are pretty large. According to the artist's written statement, the paintings have to do with Zhang's interest in social media, but this is hard to see. That's because they are so apparently hand-wrought, and thus seem to be worlds away from the computer and the Internet. So while social media may be a source, it's possible to ignore this aspect and to focus instead on Zhang's accomplished sense for composition and his striking expertise in putting paint to canvas.


Xi Zhang

Through April 14, at Plus Gallery, 2501 Larimer Street, 303-296-0927, www.plusgallery.com.Through April 7, at Metro's Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, www.metrostatecva.org.

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Stylistically, Zhang is an expressionist. In "Ceremony (The Birthday of Million Tear Drops No. 5)," the largest painting in the group, the artist has arrayed five figures across a two-panel acrylic on canvas. The dark ground is very smooth and looks sprayed on, while the figures, members of a modest wedding party, are carried out in a sketchy way. Their contours and facial features are scabrous, the result of the patches of thick pigment laid on to depict them, as well as the over-painted profile drawings. Zhang takes a slightly different approach for the garments the figures wear, including the Maoist blue suits of the two men and the light-colored gowns of the three women. Here Zhang summons up a range of abstract methods, including scribbles and drips, to describe the costumes of all five characters.

Among the many strengths of Zhang's paintings are their elaborately intriguing surfaces and their strong and widely varied palettes, which differ from canvas to canvas. Speaking of colors, Zhang's taste for bold palettes is clear evidence of his origins in Chinese aesthetics, but he also channels the recent art history of figuration in America and Europe, making the resulting works extremely sophisticated on several levels.

Out Figured, now in its final days at the Center for Visual Art, is another example of the figurative theme. The show features the work of half a dozen artists, all of whom focus on the human form while raising disturbing, or at least edgy, philosophical, sexual, psychological or sociological issues.

The exhibit represents the swan song for curator and center director Jennifer Garner, who's returned to Metropolitan State College of Denver to resume teaching full-time as an associate professor in fine arts. For Out Figured, Garner chose artists who she felt were not only technically accomplished, but who also addressed the figure in provocative ways.

The fact that we're in for something strange is established upon entry to the center, where outrageous sculptures by Christina West have been scattered around. Using nineteenth-century porcelain dolls as her source material, West has created large-scale replicas that, like the originals, use white porcelain for the heads, arms and legs of the dolls, but stuffed cloth for the bodies. In some cases, the dolls are piled on the floor, suggesting corpses from a massacre. But if suggestions of genocide weren't enough, all the male dolls sport erect penises in floral printed cloth. They are every bit as outré as they sound. In this same spirit are the photos by the late John Coplans from the '80s, which represent an early variant of the Puppetry of the Penis, but in this case, it's not penises, but old men's asses that are used to create whimsical images. To put it mildly, the sculptures by West and the photos by Coplans are limited in their appeal.

Easier to take — though the subjects are somewhat unnerving — are the digital photo montages by Nederland's Corvo Brothers, who aren't really brothers. These archival pigment prints in muted color palettes feature large figures that dominate the compositions. In "Vessels," a man is laid on a slab with tubes surrounding him and one being inserted into his mouth; it looks to some extent like an old-master depiction of Lazarus. "Saint Damian" and "Wax Venus" also recall historic depictions of the figure, and both are compelling and erotically charged.

The rest of the show is made up of paintings by three artists, each given a separate gallery. Two, Marie Vlasic and Irene Delka McCray, are from Denver, and one, Jenny Morgan, is from New York but used to live here. Interestingly, Morgan was a student of McCray's at RMCAD.

Vlasic does straightforward photo-realist paintings of her fellow twenty-something Gen-Yers who are covered with tattoos or paint. The group included in Out Figured mark three periods of Vlasic's work, with a high technical standard maintained throughout the years — though in truth, her tattooed kids from last year are more interesting than the more recent Burning Man characters.

The McCrays are striking, and the artist's approach to representation is more loose and painterly than Vlasic's precise takes. McCray is concerned in this body of work with translucent fabrics draping elderly people who are either on their death beds or actually dead; it's hard to say which. McCray revels in the depiction of the twisted sheets and covers and in the wrinkled skin and flowing hair of her subjects.

Stylistically, Morgan has taken nothing from her old mentor, McCray, but she has absorbed a taste for difficult concepts. Unquestionably the star of Out Figured, Morgan specializes in portraits — both self-portraits and portraits of her contemporaries. This old-fashioned form strikes me as an unlikely way to push representation to the edge, but Morgan has done it by reconciling different stylistic and pictorial traditions. There's a pop quality, a tip of the hat to photo-realism, and myriad references to "mistakes" in the photo process that provide the basis for these paintings. Sections of some pieces would be called "overexposed" if they weren't paintings; elsewhere, it looks like "filters" have been used to soften the images — but again, these are paintings.

When Garner put together Out Figured, she didn't know it would be her last show at CVA. At the time, the college and the Metro State Foundation board, which fronted the $1.5 million to buy the Santa Fe location, were discussing ways to make the center into more of a moneymaker; toward that end, Amy Tancig was hired as business and development director. One idea being kicked around is renting out the CVA for weddings and parties. But this would, of course, involve tweaking the programming to make it more event-"friendly" — which Out Figured definitely isn't. Realizing that her role would change drastically, Garner decided to return full-time to teaching. At this point, program decisions are being made by the able Cecily Cullen, the assistant director and curator who's been at the CVA even longer than Garner. Greg Watts, the head of the art department, remains as the center's executive director, and he told me that while there are no immediate plans to replace Garner, any backstage changes that are made will be all but invisible to visitors. We'll have to wait and see.

I'm going to close on a personal note. Among the many shows Garner put together since 2005, when she started at the CVA, were two that were based on books for which I was a co-author, Landscapes of Colorado and Colorado Abstract. Though I had nothing to do with the shows themselves, I did have front-row seats for both, and can honestly say that watching Garner sort and arrange the work of over fifty artists for each show left me thoroughly impressed and newly aware of all it took to put on a major exhibit. I will miss her vision and her shows, and I'm sure many others will, too.

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