At Miami’s Art Basel a few weeks ago, Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian," a $120,000 banana duct-taped to the wall, took the Internet by storm. Cattelan had the credibility to pull off such a ridiculous stunt: He’s been the bad boy of the 21st-century art world, and an earlier work, a solid-gold toilet dubbed “America,” also went viral. Actually, it went viral twice — the second time after it was stolen from an exhibit at Blenheim Palace. With the banana, he's lampooning the art world, while the toilet makes fun of the U.S.
Though sight gags like Cattelan’s play an inordinately large role in conceptual art, other conceptualists take a decidedly different approach, exploring ideas expansively by creating elegant objects to illustrate them. Recent works by Joel Swanson, a highly regarded Colorado artist of this latter stripe, are now on display in Joel Swanson/Eight-and-a-Half-by-Eleven at David B. Smith Gallery.
Over the past several years, Swanson has revealed his broad interest in using words and their logical relations as his principal theme. The pieces here involve his recollections of school, and the show’s odd numerical title refers to the size of a standard sheet of paper, with paper and its extensions serving as his source of inspiration.
At the start is a series of five flat wall panels in finely finished black aluminum, whose weird shapes follow the dimensions determined by flattening cardboard crayon boxes. The sizes depend on how many crayons they once held, ranging from 16 to 96: Those students with the bigger boxes were the envy of others. On the opposite wall, taking on different content but with a similar appearance, is the word “Trix” seen in reverse, representing the fact that Swanson, as a kid, would read the back of his cereal box at breakfast.
The largest of the paper-related pieces is the installation in back, where one wall is covered with a digital print on vinyl depicting blank, wide-rule notebook paper, while the adjacent wall has a print of standard rule: The corner junction of the two types is meant to suggest the passage from childhood to the teenage years. High on the side wall is a video monitor with quickly changing images, which a voiceover narrator identifies with the U.N.’s universal letter words, so instead of “A,” it would be “Alpha.” For Swanson, this recalls the illustrated alphabets on blackboards of old grammar school classrooms that he has taken out of the American context and placed in a universal one, both through the voiceover and his selection of images, like a tropical lizard and a rainbow umbrella.
The crayon boxes, text from a cereal box and the ruled-paper prints, not to mention the video, have an extremely sleek quality, appropriate to their industrial origins, so it's something of a surprise to see related pieces that embrace a more expressionist look. In one, “Untitled," Swanson has taken white correcting fluid (Wite-Out) to a sheet of oversized graphic paper, almost, but not quite, obliterating the graph lines. He's joked about its relationship to Agnes Martin’s work, and it does have a Martin-esque character. In a similar vein is “Composition Notebook Pattern," which replicates the marbled cover of a copybook, but does so in a way that allows the articulation of his individual Sharpie marks to remain visible. The cube made of erasers is a cross between the two, because it's both industrial and handmade.
Though overshadowed by the banana news, other reports coming out of Miami noted the greatly increased interest in abstraction, and Smith has a small show to satisfy that taste as well. In the project space, Cody Hudson/I Came Home includes paintings and small sculptures that are abstracted depictions of plant life. Chicago artist Cody Hudson reduces the botanical subjects down to simple, almost tentatively drawn shapes, then conventionalizes them for his sculptures.
For I Came Home, Hudson has painted rows of wavy bars in a yellowish amber that wrap around the room but are not continuous, colliding at the corners. He hangs his framed easel paintings on top of these, and the combination works well. The one major piece is “Landscape Painting based on…,” done in dry, earthy colors, like all of the paintings. The pointed awkwardness of the composition uses an oddball lollipop shape — a flower? a seed head? — near the center to anchor the whole thing. This form is surrounded by a simplified rock outcropping, under a striped sky.
In the middle of the room is a low plywood plinth with a group of Hudson’s great little sculptures of the plants from the paintings on the walls. Formally, the plants are like those you’d see in The Flintstones, but they’re also kind of Matisse-ian. Interestingly, Hudson takes a more or less hard-edged view of his presumably soft-edged subjects. The three elements together — the wall painting, the paintings and the sculptures — transform the project space into a singular installation.
Michael Hedges, another Chicago artist working in abstraction, is the focus of Michael Hedges/The Lost Highway, one of three solos at Space Gallery. Hedges's process is based on solving color problems through the arrangement of forms, with the artist conflating the two. He works on as many as ten canvases at once, so that he can explore the problems in different ways on separate paintings.
The Hedges at Space are all of a piece, with wide brushmarks and bold colors, and are extremely complex, with layer on layer of painterly marks. Though the surfaces are clearly expressed, the separate levels below are revealed here and there. There’s an aggressive quality to the brush marks: Hedges has described his method as involving bursts of energy in the tradition of action painting. The results are undeniably beautiful.
A second abstract solo at Space, Sue Oehme/The Sum of Our Parts, consists of recent work by Sue Oehme, one of Colorado’s top printmakers. In this show, Oehme deconstructs her process. The prints are dense, layered compositions made up of aggregations of separate spaces and images that have been structured, typically vertically, sort of like stripes. As you look at the different elements, you’ll notice meshes and other repeated patterns.
Opposite the prints is the source material she used to create them: trash, wrappers, labels and other bits of paper ephemera that she cuts up and lays on the printing bed. After inking up, she then feeds the paper into the printer over and over, capturing in the prints the impromptu compositions she has arranged. Oehme has taken some of these source materials and used them to create wall pieces for this show, including the gorgeous title work, “The Sum of Our Parts."
The last of the solos, Patricia Aaron/Raw and Real, highlights luscious encaustic paintings by prominent Colorado artist Patricia Aaron. Though all three of the showcased artists at Space favor densely composed compositions, Aaron does the others one better by creating all-over abstractions that are atmospheric. Using scribbles, drips and runs, she makes innumerable pictorial moves that she consolidates into the picture, over, under and around each other. Though the paintings have a neo-abstract-expressionist quality, Aaron has updated that by expressing a sense of depth, as though the viewer were looking into a dense fog or murky waters.
On the second floor are some experimental pieces in which Aaron has stacked panels to form paintings that are actually wall reliefs. One of these, “Le Soleil,” a stack dominated by shades of yellow interrupted by bits of red and blue, has been acquired by the Kirkland Museum.
Conceptualism and abstraction rocked Miami this year, but you can catch some of the same trends right here in Denver.
Joel Swanson, and Cody Hudson, through January 18, David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 #A Wazee Street, 303-893-4234, davidbsmithgallery.com.
Michael Hedges, Sue Oehme and Patricia Aaron, extended through January 11, Space Gallery, 400 Santa Fe Drive, 303-993-3321, spacegallery.org.