Back to the Present

As is his standard practice, Bill Havu, director of his namesake William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, has organized a group show by loosely knitting together the work of three artists and giving it a generic, one-size-fits-all title -- in this case, Icons of Our Time. Also typical at Havu -- and this is a very good thing -- is that each artist is given his or her own clearly defined space.

The first of the three Icon artists is Bethany Kriegsman, whose mixed-media pieces are installed in the entry space and beyond. A respected Colorado artist, Kriegsman lives in the foothills west of Denver and has exhibited her work in the Mile High City since moving here in 1985. That year, she joined the art faculty at the University of Denver, where she's been teaching drawing and printmaking ever since.

For Icons, Kriegsman has created a stunning body of work that cogently riffs on historic modernism. This revival of interest in golden-era modernism -- that is, art from the 1920s to the 1970s -- can be seen everywhere right now, both locally and globally. At the same time, postmodernism is looking pretty stale. (Who'd have thought, in the late twentieth century, that in the race for control of contemporary art, the formerly vanquished modernism would be back on top at the start of the 21st? )

Kriegsman's neo-modernist paintings and mixed-media pieces are all wonderful, and they demonstrate her considerable skills as an artist. Her draftsmanship is meticulous; everything's covered with abstract sketches that, though delicately hewn, are strikingly precise, creating a perfect compositional balance. And the richly saturated colors she uses are completely captivating.

Facing viewers as they enter the gallery is the luscious and appropriately named "Abundance," an oil on canvas. The painting's surface is almost entirely covered with a breathtaking metallic-gold color field -- and what's not gold is an equally beautiful black. The gold field is variegated, with gold-on-gold effects in places, but the dominant motifs are done in a Chinese red on gold or, alternately, red on black.

The red elements in "Abundance" are clearly automatist scribbles, their placement determined by instinct and intuition. But Kriegsman also wants to organize them geometrically, and, as a result, uses a lot of (more or less) straight lines.

The artist has long been influenced by the nearly abstract style of African art, and there are African references in "Abundance." But they're less literal and more abstracted than those she's used in the past, and therefore more thoroughly and successfully integrated.

Off to the left, hanging side by side, are two more oil-on-canvas paintings, "Blue Math" and "Althea." These accomplished works are closely associated with each other and also with "Abundance." Both sport monochromatic fields that dominate the compositions, and both include delicate painted details arranged in spontaneous, all-over patterns. An especially nice feature of "Blue Math" is the three-dimensional cage image in a ghostly whitish-blue that's barely visible against the light-blue ground. The repeated geometric forms that run down the center of "Althea" are also very cool.

Nearby are related though distinctly different pieces done in mixed media on paper. In "Yellow Math," Kriegsman has laid down a bright-mustard-yellow ground and then painted organic shapes and lines in red and black. This piece recalls the abstract surrealists of the 1940s -- in particular, the pre-classic period of Marc Rothko and the work of the Indian Space Group artists with whom Jackson Pollock was briefly associated in his pre-classic period. And let's not forget good old Miró.

Associations with abstract surrealism are also suggested by Kriegsman's "Hawaii," another spectacular mixed-media-on-paper confection. In this exaggeratedly vertical piece, Kriegsman vaguely refers to the landscape by topping off a yellow color field with a blue one. If possible, "Hawaii" seems even more dense with imagery than most of the others.

The Kriegsman section finishes up on the wall at the bottom of the stairs with ten small and affordably priced oil-on-canvas studies from her "Invisible" series. The studies are essentially details of her paintings and mixed-media pieces, and quite a few of them are gems.

In some ways, Kriegsman has kept a low profile in the Colorado art world and has shown only rarely -- about once every other year. As a result, she is one of the area's most overlooked important artists, and that's too bad, considering how good she obviously is.

The second Icons artist is Stephen Daly. Best known as a sculptor -- he heads the sculpture department at the University of Texas at Austin -- Daly has combined sculpture and drawing for his wall-hung pieces at Havu.

One exception is "Hybrid," a sculpture that depicts a stylized figure holding a tray with a tower on it. The piece, which was shown here a couple of years ago, is placed just inside Havu's front door and seems only tangentially related to the wall-hung pieces.