Conceptual art decks the halls of three Denver galleries

The art season for galleries and museums begins every fall, with the winter holidays representing its high point. That means that exhibition venues can be expected to have some of their most important offerings on view at this time. Currently, three top commercial hotspots are featuring very strong offerings involving conceptual art. This type of art is more associated with museums than galleries because it's usually pretty ambitious and fairly hard to sell. But the galleries may be playing off the Denver Art Museum's main event right now, Embrace! which highlights conceptual installations.

The most obvious example of this coordinated scheduling is at the Robischon Gallery, where two of the artists from Embrace! have been given solos in Jessica Stockholder and John McEnroe.

Stockholder, who was born in Seattle and grew up in Vancouver, creates what have been described as three-dimensional paintings. This no doubt is owing to her flamboyant use of color. She is widely renowned for her enormous, over-the top installations such as the one in Embrace!, "Wide Eyes Smeared Here Dear," which occupies an entire gallery on level two of the DAM's Hamilton building and bleeds into the atrium.

She was still a graduate student at Yale in 1983 when she exhibited her first piece of this sort, "Installation in My Father's Backyard," and all of her work since that time can be sourced, at least to some extent, to this initial effort.

It's unusual to find Stockholders small enough for people to actually buy, but that's what the show at Robischon is made up of. The exhibit is dominated by pieces from the artist's "Swiss Cheese" series of monotypes. But to call them monotypes really stretches the definition of that printmaking form; these works are more like bas-relief sculptures with three-dimensional objects such as fake fur, Styrofoam and aluminum applied to the paper. They're accented by a pair of sculptures that resemble Stockholder's installations in miniature. In them, she's stacked garishly colored found materials into haphazard spires that seem to defy gravity.

The Stockholder show is a great lead-in to the more ambitious McEnroe exhibit, and if she is a world-class proponent of postmodern funk, then so is he. McEnroe, who's lived in Colorado since 1995, earned his BFA at the University of Kansas and his MFA at Ohio State University. A longtime exhibitor, he received several high-profile public commissions recently, including "Model State: A Local Cosmology," a Western-themed set of bas-relief sculptures at the Colorado Convention Center, and "National Velvet," a blobby red obelisk in LoDo that's internally lighted.

For the Robischon show, McEnroe has made a series of suspended pendulum sculptures that are closely related to his "Bathers" in Embrace!. The elements are intellectual and technical extensions of "National Velvet," sporting the same organically derived forms and the same method of construction: coating sand-filled nylon tubes with polyester resin. These works are more formally elaborate than those at the DAM (and more vividly colored, as well), pushing the Picassoid references to the next level.

There is also a group of four large plastic sculptures – and these are very different. Here McEnroe has replaced the anthropomorphism of the suspension pieces with ad hoc constructivist ones. McEnroe made the sculpture by fusing children's toys and playground equipment; the results have one foot in highbrow modernism and another in lowbrow postmodernism. They're absolutely great.

The artist featured in Colin Livingston: The Big Idea at Plus Gallery in RiNo isn't in the DAM show but should be, because his installation is as good, if not better, than anything there. A Colorado native, Livingston earned his BFA from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and his talent was noticed shortly after he graduated, when he was included in MCA Denver's Colorado biennial. This is his fourth solo show at Plus and his best effort ever, anywhere.

The show is an outgrowth of Livingston's ideas about art as a commodity, the kind of thing he's been working on for the past several years. At one point, he created paintings in the colors that were predicted to be hot in home decorating, and another time, he had buyers of his work pick from a predetermined set of palettes, patterns, logos and slogans.

This time, he's transformed the ground floor at Plus into a convincing facsimile of a retail shop where the entire inventory has been made by Livingston. This calls to mind Claes Oldenburg's storefront that helped launch his career in the 1960s. But Livingston has done Oldenburg one better by making the work itself look like retail products with custom packaging; he's also put them into and onto imitations of store display units. The walls are lined with open-front cabinets filled with packaged artworks hanging by tabs. Tables and stands cover the floor. Signs have been suspended from the ceiling indicating different departments within the imaginary shop. There's even a cash and wrap station.

The packaging on the artwork, either paintings or sculptures, is made of cardboard with a set of printed designs covering it. There's the silhouette of an enthusiastic crowd seeming to cheer over the paintings inside; a cluster of paint cans arranged to look like a flower; and a paint roller with a trail of pigment surrounding a copy of Livingston's signature. And if all that weren't enough, the packages are labeled according to size and whether or not the piece has a sincere or ironic meaning. This cardboard surrounds a large "window" that reveals a substantial fragment of the piece inside.

Livingston raises so many issues about the nature of art, about art as a commodity and about what collecting art is all about, that's it's positively head-spinning. In fact, if it weren't in a gallery, it might be hard to identify The Big Idea as art at all.

As I left Plus, I considered the tremendous amount of physical work Livingston must have done to pull it off, and I wasn't surprised to learn that it had taken him an entire year. I hope some museum or art center presents this show in the future, because it would be sad if it were just all put away at the end of its run.

Livingston was one of a group of young artists to emerge from RMCAD over the past ten or fifteen years. Another is the subject of a handsome outing called Jason Hoelscher: Attention Span Management at Rule Gallery. Unlike Livingston, Hoelscher, who lives in New York, was one of those young painters who built his career by doing direct critiques of the work of his mentor, Clark Richert. (Livingston's relationship to Richert is more remote, though the two do share a taste for hard-edged painting.)

The Hoelscher paintings are incredibly simple, with the artist using only one or two colors against the white grounds. Formally, they are also pretty bare-bones, with straight lines predominating, though there are a few curved ones. But the compositions aren't simply copies of minimalist or color-field compositions from the late twentieth century, because Hoelscher adds a very subtle detail that violates the rules for these types of paintings: depth. Employing his economical formula, Hoelscher somehow introduces perspective, and thus the impression of three dimensions. This makes them post-minimal, and thus conceptual abstractions. Rule is the place in Denver to see this kind of thing, and the Hoelscher solo fits right in with the gallery's aesthetic program.

I don't need to point out that the DAM, MCA Denver and the Kirkland Museum are also chock-full of worthwhile exhibits right now — and I've reviewed several of them in the last few months. But sometimes it slips our minds that the city's private commercial galleries are also veritable treasure troves this time of year.