Clark Richert has been at his craft for over fifty years. Long acknowledged as a master of Colorado’s contemporary-art scene, in recent years he’s reached a wider audience through shows like West of Center at MCA Denver and Hippie Modernism, jointly organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum. Both exhibits focused on the utopian aspects of the 1960s.
In 1965, Richert was a founder of Drop City, a short-lived artist collective near Trinidad. Already interested in creating work based on mathematically derived patterns, Richert designed domed buildings to house the Drop City residents: both geodesic domes à la Buckminster Fuller, and domes that employed other types of polyhedrons. In the early ’70s, after Drop City had been abandoned, the collective regrouped in Boulder and established a cooperative there called Criss-Cross. Like Richert, many of the Criss-Cross artists were interested in patterns. If Drop City was an important moment in the nation’s counterculture scene, Criss-Cross was an important moment for Colorado art; these pattern painters were on the cutting edge of abstraction nationally. It’s too bad that no proper museum exhibition has been mounted to document Criss-Cross — but in many ways, Richert has kept the torch burning for both Drop City and Criss-Cross during the several decades that the movements fell into the category of “Trivial Pursuit, Colorado art edition.”
Richert’s latest solo, Close Packed Structures: Works by Clark Richert, on view now at Gildar Gallery, includes many pieces done in the past two years, along with a couple of earlier ones. Comparing the relatively recent compositions with the older works reveals that Richert is still following essentially the same aesthetic path he started out on in the ’60s — creating compositions using patterns — but also that he’s gotten more relaxed about it.
In 1980’s “Rhombic Inversion,” Richert has set different patterns of lines on top of a dark-colored ground. An ordinary grid and an irregular one suggest three-dimensionality, as does the rhythm of little squares, with the placement of every mark having been predetermined using mathematical formulas. As you examine the piece, you can’t help but think about the staggering amount of effort that must have gone into it, as Richert apparently taped off every one of the thousands of marks on the canvas in order to paint them with mind-blowing precision. And the pigments have been applied so smoothly, they deny evidence of the artist’s hand. The paintings from 2015 and 2016 are much freer in execution. In “Central Core Cube,” the overriding grid pattern is again tightly done, but Richert has filled in the flattened geometric forms in a very painterly way. This sets up a tension that the older piece, strong in its own way, doesn’t have, with the prose of the geometry playing against the poetry of his painterly approach.
The exhibit also includes works on paper with digitally derived patterns, which have been printed out with inkjets; like the older pieces, these are crisp and mechanistic. While several of them employ patterns similar to those Richert uses in his paintings, others do not. Most interesting are “Single Slit” and “Double Slit,” which take an entirely different approach to patterning: Both feature curved, radiating lines as opposed to puzzles of polygonal elements.
From the start, Richert has used mathematical patterns to express his idealism and optimism. That provides a strong contrast to a solo by another Denver artist, The Deep End: Jonathan Saiz, now at Leon Gallery. In this show, Saiz exhibits the opposite impulse, using patterns to reflect a dystopian worldview, depicting a place that’s home to toxic religions and dangerous conspiracies.
The Saiz solo is processional, and begins with an installation that wraps around two sides of the entry space. Called “The Database,” it pretty much lays out the artist’s intentions for the entire show. Both walls have been painted black. On the short one to the left, Saiz has written seemingly random thoughts directly on the wall. One riff, lined up in a column, reads, “Secret, Society, Freemason, Illuminati, Beyonce, YouTube,” but most of the writings are just a phrase or even a single word, like “gold.” Saiz has linked these thoughts to one another with pins and colored strings; as you look at the piece, dark meanings begin to emerge. Saiz was brought up in a Fundamentalist Christian church, in which images of hellfire inspired his first childhood drawings, and that’s reflected here.
On the adjacent wall, Saiz has created a grid that’s mostly lined up horizontally and vertically, except that this order disintegrates at the bottom left, where it connects to that initial wall. The grid consists of hundreds of tiny oil-on-wood paintings, each encased in its own ready-made clear-plastic case; a few of these appear on the other wall, too. These very charming little paintings are either abstract or representational; according to Saiz, they signify a kind of purging of visual ideas that he’s been kicking around for years. There’s also an interactive aspect to “The Database”: Each of the little paintings in plastic is for sale, and would-be purchasers are asked to circle the one they want using a red crayon. Quite a few of them are already marked.
“The Database” wraps around into the main part of the show, and these little paintings serve as building blocks for the rest of the works. Saiz has isolated some alone in enormous frames; in other intriguing pieces, such as “Intuition,” he stacks the little pieces so that only those images on the top can be seen. Pushing this idea even further, some of the images on top aren’t visible, either, because he has painted an X across them. In the process, he shares his belief that real meanings about the nature of things have been intentionally covered up.
Though many of Saiz’s works are compelling, the showstopper is the monumental “It’s only working ’til it isn’t,” made up of thousands of little plastic boxes, each containing a minuscule painting. Trussed up with brightly colored cords and painted over in places, the piece takes on a jagged horizontal form that stands out from the wall. These elements are supposed to tell the story of the end of the world, as well as its rebirth — but in truth, the story is mostly conveyed through color, since the images in the paintings are difficult to read.
Still, a viewer doesn’t need to understand the apocalyptic vision that lies behind the Saiz pieces in order to appreciate them, since they are so beautiful. And that holds true with Richert’s work: You don’t need to understand the math to appreciate the splendor of his pictures.
Clark Richert, through December 23, Gildar Gallery, 82 South Broadway, 303-993-4474, gildargallery.com.
Jonathan Saiz, through January 8, Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue, 303-832-1599, leongallery.com.