Best Contemporary-Realist Show — Solo 2016 | Michael J. Dowling: Forgotten Scoundrels | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

The guys who run Point Gallery, Frank Martinez and Michael Vacchiano, have primarily focused on artists who work in one or another contemporary variant of good old-fashioned realism. That was the case with the drawings and paintings in Michael J. Dowling: Forgotten Scoundrels. Dowling's enigmatic portraits were inspired, at least in broad terms, by Italian old master Caravaggio, an artistic genius and a known rogue. This source of inspiration, both aesthetically solid and ethically disreputable, explains why Dowling's figures were expertly done but had a dark and edgy quality to them, especially in the handling of faces and garments. Dowling grew up in Colorado and studied with John Hull years ago, when Hull taught at the University of Colorado Denver, and the mentor's influence is easy to see in these works. Dowling also spent two years in Italy studying traditional painting techniques, and that is revealed in the work, too, partly explaining his creation of 21st-century works inspired by an artist from the sixteenth. It also neatly explains why he's such an expert at conveying the figure.

Bill Havu, owner of the eponymous William Havu Gallery, and Nick Ryan, the gallery's manager, organized the compelling Roadside Attractions, which included paintings by a quartet of contemporary realists. Well-known Denver artist Rick Dula was given the starring role in the festivities, as well as the lion's share of Havu's expansive spaces. Dula is a photo-realist who's made a career of depicting the built environment, either old industrial buildings in otherwise bucolic settings or urban buildings that are so new, they're not finished yet. The Dulas were supplemented by stylistically similar views of small towns by Lloyd Brown, while the exceptionally traditional-looking vistas in the unadulterated Western landscapes of Jeff Aeling's atmospheric paintings represented a shift in gears from both groups of photo-like works. The show finished upstairs, where expressive and simplified glimpses of contemporary rural life by Lori Buntin were on display, their abstract simplicity distinguishing them from the super-realistic depictions downstairs.

Boulder-area artist Teresa Booth Brown is best known for her non-objective paintings, but for this impressive solo at Ironton, she decided to do something different by presenting her distinct, if conceptually related, drawings. For most of them, she embraced an unusual process unlike ordinary drafting: Instead of making her marks with pencils, she did it with erasers. Brown began with found book pages that she chose based on their appeal to her; she then evenly covered the chosen pages with graphite powder, selectively erasing the graphite to introduce compositional elements. Put all together, the small works made a big impact. Sadly, though, this was one of the last shows at Ironton Gallery, which closed in January, though Ironton's studios remain up and running. Since 2004, artist Jill Hadley Hooper had run Ironton Gallery — with help from her partner, Hugh Graham — and invited some of the area's most interesting artists, such as Brown, to exhibit.

Nicole Banowetz does something kind of odd: She makes installations using inflated forms that have given her an easily recognizable signature. It's not like the medium is completely unknown, but it's safe to say that few artists anywhere work in this way, and in Denver, she's cornered the market. Her unusual approach was most recently displayed in Gentle Infestation at Pirate: Contemporary Art, with a unified installation of gigantic shapes that seemed to be abstract but were in fact representational, based on single-celled sea creatures called Radiolaria. Their complex forms were done in white-colored, plastic-coated fabric, with some elements suspended from the ceiling. In places, tiny white porcelain sculptures were visible through transparent acrylic portholes. These little shapes inspired the show's title, but the whole thing felt like an infestation. Big inflated forms are more likely to be used for holiday decorations than for any kind of art, but it turns out that Banowetz was inspired by such things when she learned to make them for the Museum of Outdoor Arts.

Although technically the pieces in a folk tale by Bryan Andrews were separate works, the artist orchestrated them in such a way that together they resolved into an installation. Andrews has long created pieces, mostly from carved wood, that come out of his own cooked-up set of myths, inspired by his study of the world's spiritual beliefs. For this show, the myth system was based on a metaphorical forest; the arrangement of the pieces was intentional, and began with one representing the courier who carried the tale. Next came three busts looking on from one side and a set of prints facing them, both types of works symbolizing the archetypal characters that played roles in the imaginary myth; it all culminated in a tall spire that marked the imaginary place where the tale had been planted. Andrews had previously taken a several-years hiatus from exhibiting his work in town, and a folk tale by Bryan Andrews marked his return to the scene — but he's now moving away, so in retrospect, it was also his fond farewell.

Every other year, a raft of Denver art venues mount shows as part of the Month of Photography, the brainchild of photographer Mark Sink. During last spring's event it was Sink's wife, Kristen Hatgi Sink, who stole the show with the engaging exhibit A Tented Sky: New Works by Kristen Hatgi Sink. Her subject was the female nude, and she posed her models tabletop, drenching them in honey and adorning them with cut flowers, sliced fruit, preserved butterflies and even an octopus. Typical of her exacting standards, Hatgi Sink spent many hours getting just the right shots. The finished photos, in oversized digital pigment prints produced by Ron Landucci, were richly colored, densely composed and perfectly executed. An installation of flowers, fruit and honey supplemented the photos and resonated with them, even if the organic matter started to stink before the show closed.

A couple of years ago, Glenwood Springs-based artist Andrew Roberts-Gray was interested in capturing the mountain scenery in paintings that were fairly traditional save for a few colorful and expressive abstract passages inserted here and there. Those paintings represented a contemporary spin on that old workhorse the Western landscape. The artist's oeuvre has changed considerably since then, and although he still claims to refer to the landscape, such reference was hard to see in his most recent work, which made up the solo After the Pale King: Andrew Roberts-Gray at Michael Warren Contemporary. The show was dominated by gigantic, post-minimal wall constructions made up of multiple panels that sometimes had geometric sculptural elements. Artists are often timid about changing course once they've developed a successful artistic formula, as Roberts-Gray had with his earlier, slightly altered landscapes, and it probably took courage to throw away that signature style. Fortunately, he found another one that is just as successful, if not more so.

Last winter, Robischon Gallery presented a suite of environmental shows that zeroed in on the topic of water, an urgent subject in the West. A standout among these strong exhibits was Stephen Batura: Floodplain, and although the entire show had fewer than a half-dozen paintings, the experience was just this side of transcendental. That's because the exhibit was anchored by a single spectacular work: the title piece, "Floodplain." Measuring forty feet across and rising twelve feet high, it was a highly expressive but nonetheless convincing rendition of rapidly flowing water. The casein-on-board painting relates to the many that Batura has done over the years on the subject of the South Platte River, including those times when it has flooded. In terms of size and charisma, "Floodplain" demands to have a big wall to hang it on. And it deserves to: It should be on permanent display in a local open-to-the-public lobby, or even a museum.

The idea for the ambitious group show Learning to See Color at the University of Denver's Vicki Myhren Gallery was sparked by a Josef Albers portfolio in DU's collection. Albers did the prints in the '70s as a retrospective of his fifty-years-long obsession with color. Free-associating from the images in the portfolio, co-curators Dan Jacobs (the Myhren director) and Jeffrey Keith (a noted Denver artist) went beyond just exploring color to examining how color illuminates the nature of art itself. They rounded up an array of works that showed how color can indicate mood, narrative, composition and other visual-art features. The show included many notable works by internationally famous artists, such as Andy Warhol and Helen Frankenthaler, and many pieces by Colorado artists, including Sushe Felix, Monroe Hodder and Kate Petley. The only down note had nothing to do with how well the organizers put together the exhibit or how interesting their many inclusions were, but rather with an anonymous crime: Collin Parson's "Night Sight/Night Site," a multi-part installation, was repeatedly vandalized and ultimately removed. In spite of this terrible hit, the show still held together as one of the season's top attractions.

Back in the '70s and '80s, painter Fritz Scholder was a hot property, riding the Southwestern craze of the time — but then, about twenty years ago, he fell out of favor. Recently, though, perceptions of his efforts have started to change, and a good indication was the wildly popular Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980, a show that looked at the artist's highly idiosyncratic depictions of American Indians. In retrospect, these paintings revolutionized the public perceptions of Native American art and liberated American Indian artists from the limitations of their traditional practices. It could accurately be said that there is Native American art before Scholder and after Scholder — the changes he wrought were that big. Curated by John Lukavic, from the Denver Art Museum's Native Arts department, the show was anchored by the many Scholder pieces in the DAM's collection, including a trove of ten major works only recently donated by mega-collectors Kent and Vicki Logan. It was intriguing to notice that as Scholder's paintings have gotten older, they've started to look newer, and even seem contemporary right now.

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