Early Thaw

In the anything-goes art world of the last couple of decades, contemporary art has fractured into innumerable stylistic tendencies. Contemporary artists are creating everything from conceptual installations, videos and performances to neo-traditional paintings and sculptures.

Considering this stylistic anarchy, it's interesting when a trend can be perceived. Apparently, one of the currents in the air right now is the creation of abstracts derived from forms found in the natural world.

This kind of work is hardly new, but it's experiencing a big-time revival. Roots of the approach extend back a century, to the beginnings of abstraction -- notably, the early cubist work of Braque. But during the era of classic American modernism -- from the 1950s to the 1970s, when abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism ruled -- nature-based art seemed naive, if not downright backward. That changed in the '80s, with the rise of neo-expressionism, and really picked up in the '90s.

The wide variety of offerings currently on display demonstrates the renewed importance of this kind of work. Among the best is Robischon Gallery's Luminous Nature, which contrasts pieces by Trine Bumiller, Rosalyn Schwartz and Kathy Moss. Gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran organized the exhibit, and, as usual, Doran arranged it so that each artist is given a separate room (or two, in Moss's case).

The show begins in the entry gallery with a selection of recent paintings by Bumiller. Robischon's commitment to the well-known Denver painter began in the late '80s, and the gallery has shown her work almost every year since. These latest pieces, which have generated a lot of positive word of mouth around town, mark a shift in the artist's work. Bumiller has long assembled separately painted panels in order to create a single work. In the past, she would either line up the panels horizontally or stack them vertically; either way, the resulting form would be rectangular. For Luminous Nature, however, Bumiller has arranged the panels so that they form elaborate geometric configurations, and while they are still rectilinear, they are no longer simple rectangles.

Bumiller premiered this approach late last year in a public-art piece installed in the Engineering Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The multi-part painting, titled "River Story," hangs in the corridor outside the Environmental Engineering Laboratories. It is made up of six narrow, horizontal panels that meander like a river along the wall. Taken together, the panels measure 36 feet in length. By arranging them in unexpected ways, Bumiller added a sculptural element that's not there in the strictly rectangular paintings. In a sense, that makes "River Story" an installation, which is also the case with the paintings at Robischon: They could actually be described as painted, wall-hung installations. (Along with the craze for nature-based abstraction, contemporary artists are also going wild for this sculptural approach of installing multiple panels to form a single painting.)

In other ways, though, these recent pieces are clearly Bumiller in style and technique. There are the naturalistic shapes she prefers, which variously suggest roots, branches, rivers, water, clouds and stars. Then, of course, there's her chosen palette of muted earth tones, applied in transparent layers on a rigidly flat surface.

Facing us as we enter the gallery is "Wintercount," an oil on canvas comprising three separate panels in which icy blues, whites and grays dominate. Bumiller has arranged the piece so that a narrow, horizontal central panel links a pair of square ones that bracket it asymmetrically. The center panel connects the side of the left panel to the bottom of the right one so that the painting seems to step up and down and up again across the wall; in the process, it occupies more visual space than a traditional rectangular painting would. The two squares are covered in lines and shapes evocative of bare branches; on the horizontal part, there's a serpentine line that suggests a river seen from above. (It's the same kind of line seen in all six panels of "River Story.")

To the left is "Gene Pool," another three-part oil on canvas that's closely related to "Wintercount." A large square canvas painted dusty blue has been placed in the center, with a smaller square painted on the left and a vertically oriented rectangle on the right; the flanking panels are done in brown on creamy white. The abstract shapes suggest leaves, water and twigs, but the title indicates that microscopic life -- whose forms evoke similar imagery -- is actually Bumiller's subject.

In the adjacent front gallery are atmospheric abstract paintings by Rosalyn Schwartz. Based in Illinois, Schwartz is brand-new to Robischon. These paintings, done over the last few years, combine luxurious, multi-level color fields with linear patterns. However, the symmetrical patterns are organic rather than geometric. They're reminiscent of flowering and fruiting vines, as in "Forgiving Darkness IV," or of decorative art -- like wrought-iron work -- that's based on vines, as in "Untitled," or even, in the case of "Thalo I," a chandelier, complete with illuminated lightbulbs. This relationship to decorative art is no accident; Schwartz's paintings are unapologetically decorative.