Spring Cleaning

We may or may not have seen the last of the snow this year, but signs of renewal--such a part of the ritual of spring--are visible everywhere. Blossoming along with all of those tulips is the city's local alternative-art scene, where a veritable nosegay of important events are helping ease the chill of a long and mostly forgettable winter.

To put the most generous of spins on it, since the first of the year, Denver's alternative spaces have been somnolent. There have been a handful of interesting shows, but none have generated much excitement or positive word of mouth. That's all changed now with the five--count 'em--shows wowing the scene at Pirate, the flagship of the city's alternative world.

Since its facelift last year, the main gallery at Pirate has become one of the best and the brightest of the city's art spaces. And this delightful and airy front room is the perfect setting for Linde Schlumbohm and J. Hadley Hooper, a display from a pair of local artists known for their sophisticated and contemporary work.

Autobiographical allusions are a specialty in Schlumbohm's multimedia world, though precisely what we're supposed to draw from them is sometimes hard to tell. In the murky and dark "Grandma's Funeral," an acrylic and collage on board, a ghostly black dress seems to float in a sea of red and orange. Schlumbohm's use of dark yet hot colors makes the collage elements, which include fragments of McCall's dress patterns, recede into the background. But one thing is guaranteed to catch the viewer's eye: the luminous string of pearls that have been placed at top center, as if they were still around Grandma's neck.

Over the past five years or so, Schlumbohm has developed a series of symbolic icons meant to add feminist commentary to her work. The icons include advertisements for food, clothing or makeup, as well as dressmakers' measuring tapes and dresses. They represent her long-held interest in the intersection of society's pervasive sexist messages with the individual--who in this case is Schlumbohm herself.

Schlumbohm's most artistically ambitious efforts are the three paintings of wedding gowns that take charge of the entire show--"Bride I," "Bride II" and "Bride III." These graphite, acrylic and collage works are hybrids of paintings and installations, composed of long vertical pieces of unstretched canvas that hang from gilt valances. They spill onto the floor like draperies, and while they're stunning, they're displayed awkwardly. The paintings would have been more successful if Schlumbohm had simply tacked them to the wall and left out the valances.

Always a strong suit for Schlumbohm is traditional drawing, which is prominently featured in the "Brides." The gowns that dominate each of the works have been exquisitely rendered in glowing, white-on-dark recessive backgrounds. Though Schlumbohm can lay her own claim to using fashion as a subject, the "Brides" bring to mind the paintings of dresses by Steve Batura that were seen last year at both Pirate and the Arvada Center. Are we witnessing a nascent costume-portrait school centered on Navajo Street? Nah--more likely a school devoted to taking frivolous things to the nth degree of solemnity, a trait that Schlumbohm's exhibition mate Hooper has honed well.

For this show, Hooper has added three striking new paintings to a reprise of the enigmatic works on paper she premiered earlier this year at the O'Sullivan Arts Center. And as ridiculous as her combination of silly and straight themes may seem at first, the results are quite intriguing.

The first of the new paintings is "Spell," a portrait of a man with devil's horns. The other two, "Serpent" and "A.," suggest a radical change in Hooper's stylistic aims, from the lyrical tone of her works on paper to a more brutal approach to painting. In "A.," a much more abstract rendition of a man holds a hand puppet of a deer. Despite the goofy-sounding subject matter, "A." has an unnerving effect. In "Serpent," Hooper has troweled a clunky-looking muddy-siena machine onto an off-white ground.

Two exhibits share Pirate's awkwardly shaped Associates Gallery: A self-titled show from longtime Denver painter Nancy Bohm is on display in the tall, narrow space, and another one-woman show hangs in the room under the loft. The pieces in the Bohm show continue the artist's highly idiosyncratic approach, which refers cogently to traditional art while also stretching it to the breaking point.

For this series of paintings of flowers and seeds, Bohm has created large and overwhelming integral frames. "Sunflower Moon," a cast-plaster and oil on board, is a tiny, blurry rendering of a group of sunflowers at night under a full moon. No matter how hard we try, the details will not snap into focus. Surrounding the small painting is an extremely wide and heavily modeled plaster frame, a gloppy melange of twigs, seed heads and faces in deep relief. All of Bohm's paintings are engaging, especially "Old One," which is also the biggest. In it, a delicate drawing of a dead sunflower stalk is set on a soft, multi-toned gray field, its different shades creating a gorgeous illusion of pictorial depth.

Across from Bohm's weirdly wonderful paintings are the even weirder efforts by Karen Bozik featured in On Family: Portraits From the Carnival. Bozik obviously knows her way around a paintbrush, and her skill at capturing faces and figures is really quite accomplished. The best of these suggest the influence of medieval Persian miniatures; especially impressive is the border of lotus blossoms that Bozik runs across the bottom of "Lovers Drinking (US)." But these references to Persian art may be lost on many viewers, and where Bozik is less sure of her influences, as in "Ascension (Nancy)," we may recall instead the illustrations in the books that Hare Krishnas have a constitutionally protected right to sell at Denver International Airport.

Around the corner from the Associates Gallery is Pirate's intimate Treasure Chest, which is filled to the rafters--literally--with Ladders and Laundry, an interesting installation by Kathy Hutton. The floors have been painted a lovely terra-cotta shade, the walls an eerie green. Handmade ladders constructed of twigs hold up clotheslines hung with tea towels, which have been embroidered with pictures of hearts that tell a country-and-Western-type story of the mending of a broken one. The ladders are a fine metaphor, and the embroidered story is quite nice, but the lighting is obtrusive--something Hutton really needs to work on.

Just off the front door at Pirate is the space known as ILK at Pirate, which is run by a wholly independent cooperative that subleases the room. Showing there now is painter J. Hankinson Clark, who presents a very sweet series of multi-panel minimalist paintings in the exhibit Lighthouse From the Body. Clark has painted grids or strips of rectangular boards non-objectively with oil and encaustic, getting his greatest results when the paintings blend into a homogenous surface--as in the companion pieces "Lighthouse From the Body" and "Body From the Lighthouse." In the very cool "Mist," a vertical lineup of rectangular painted panels climbs the walls, interspersed with panels of painted glass.

Pirate isn't the only place with a great show right now. And Clark isn't the only local artist interested in minimalism, a style that is apparently going through a full-scale revival. Also taking a major interest in the minimal is Bruce Price, a relative newcomer to the Denver circuit whose work is being featured at Rule, one of the city's finest commercial galleries. Price's Between Rigor and Indulgence exhibit is very brief, but it's a good showcase for his talents.

Price is a protege of that master of local geometric abstraction, Clark Richert. And while the mentor's influence is clear in the younger artist's hard-edged approach, the new kid on the block is definitely setting off in his own direction. Price borrows from Richert the habit of using different levels of illusional space, but his work is much simpler in overall composition. In "First Cut," a gorgeous acrylic on canvas, he drips a large vertical field of orange paint over a soft acid-green ground. The whole thing is held in place by the dark and weighty blue field that tops off the piece.

All of the exhilarating art on display this spring must be the product of many hours of work by the artists over the bleak winter months. But it's not only the artists who've had to deal with privation and cabin fever; exhibition-goers have, too. That may explain why several of these exhibits have sprouted those wonderful black dots the way lawns are now sprouting dandelions. The dots--which indicate that works have been sold--mean that many people are again putting their money where their art is. And that's what really makes the art scene grow.

Works by Linde Schlumbohm, J. Hadley Hooper, Nancy Bohm, Karen Bozik, Kathy Hutton and J. Hankinson Clark, through May 4 at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 458-6058.

Between Rigor and Indulgence, through May 3 at Rule, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.