Review: Uncanny Is Poppin' Fresh at Walker Fine Art

“Lucky You,” by Mark Penner-Howell, mixed media on wood.
Courtesy of the Artist
“Lucky You,” by Mark Penner-Howell, mixed media on wood.
Bobbi Walker has been changing how she deals with her namesake gallery, Walker Fine Art. The place is enormous, with a double-height entry space and four discrete galleries beyond, which presents a challenge in making simultaneous shows work together. For a long time, Walker’s approach was to present a solo in the front, typically stretching into the first pair of spaces, and then fill the remaining spaces with work by artists in the gallery’s stable. She wanted to showcase the wide range of her artists, and the solo up front typically had nothing to do with the shows in back. A few exhibition cycles ago, though, Walker decided that what she really needed to do was present group shows comprising compatible artists so that there would be an overriding theme. That decision pays off with Uncanny, the exhibit currently on view.

The show begins with work by Carol Coates, an artist from Santa Fe. Her pieces are of mixed media, but clearly based on photos of people’s faces; these have been heavily altered in a variety of ways, as Coates is adept at drawing, painting, photography and digital techniques. Coates has said she was inspired to do them when she fabricated steampunk-style eyeglasses in what she calls a “lost moment.” The people in the portraits are depicted as “wearing” the glasses, but since they’d actually be impossible to wear, the images of the glasses are laid on top of those of the faces. The resulting portraits are whimsically weird, and the whole group has a neo-’60s Yellow Submarine-ish quality.

click to enlarge Four mixed-media works by Carol Coates (left);  sculpture by David Mazza. - COURTESY OF CAROL COATES
Four mixed-media works by Carol Coates (left); sculpture by David Mazza.
Courtesy of Carol Coates
Next come pieces by the late Roland Bernier, a Denver master so ahead of the pack that while these works date back several years, they still look up-to-the-minute. All are from Bernier’s “Are You Talking to Me” series, the title of which comes from a line in the film Taxi Driver. Bernier freely absorbed many pop-cultural influences and used words spelled out in block letters as his chief pictorial device. The main piece is similar in conception to a work by Bernier at the Colorado Convention Center, though smaller. It spells out “Are You Talking to Me” in large mirrored letters applied directly to the wall; the mirrored letters inevitably insert the viewer into the work through their reflection. Bernier incorporated words in other ways, too, as shown by the large panel covered by a grid of ten color photocopies of People magazine covers. In the center of each is a circular mirror, resulting in the viewer ending up on the cover of People.

click to enlarge "Are You Talking to Me" series detail, by Roland Bernier. - COURTESY OF WALKER FINE ART
"Are You Talking to Me" series detail, by Roland Bernier.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art
Across from the Berniers is a multi-part installation by Denver digital artist Bryan Leister, who is also interested in incorporating the viewer, but does it through artificial intelligence. Some of the Leister experiments, such as the five untitled touch screens, are on the fun side. Reminiscent of a kitchen clock, the touch screens are mounted at the center of radiating circles of wire. When you touch the ones on the wall, the patterns change; you can draw on the ones on stands. “Valley” is more serious and can be downright creepy. An animated image of a man and another of a woman appear on separate wall-mounted monitors; in the center is a device that registers the presence of viewers, with their silhouettes conveyed at the bottom of the screen. The taciturn and affectless man and woman may or may not turn to shoot an icy stare. At one point, they both glared at me. Effective, if unnerving.

click to enlarge "Valley," by Bryan Leister, video monitors and identification software. - COURTESY OF WALKER FINE ART
"Valley," by Bryan Leister, video monitors and identification software.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art
Two artists share the space in the back, and both use digital technology. Angela Piehl is from Stillwater, Oklahoma. She scans collages she’s made from cut-up magazine ads — she has a taste for jewelry, fruit, flowers and swatches of fabric — and then turns the collages into digital prints so that they float on a field of white paper. Piehl’s compositions have a whiff of classic modernism, which is not undercut by the mass-market sources of the advertising imagery. Chicago’s Malcolm Easton produces archival prints from photographs, creating elegant and beautifully balanced still-life scenes of dimly lit thrift-shop finds and recycled materials set against a black background. They’re reminiscent of Old Master paintings, and I had to take a close look before I was sure they were actually photos and not traditional realist paintings. The mood in this shared space is very elegant, and much quieter than that of the previous sections, which have an almost carnivalesque feel. But there is a connection, because Piehl uses mass media and advertising references in her collages, and Easton depicts mundane and commonplace articles — and both of those sources are pop-cultural.

click to enlarge Digital collages by Angela Piehl. - COURTESY OF WALKER FINE ART
Digital collages by Angela Piehl.
Courtesy of Walker Fine Art
The final segment returns to the funhouse atmosphere with mixed-media-on-wood paintings by Denver-area artist Mark Penner-Howell that have a decidedly retro character recalling mid-twentieth-century magazine- and book-cover illustrations, yet also have a hyperrealist aspect. Penner-Howell combines many techniques to produce his final compositions, and his gift for meticulously carrying out his subjects is impressive. The standout is “Lucky You,” which depicts a space capsule touching down in the sea. The capsule and the astronaut inside have been crisply done, with an almost photographic level of detailing, and they’re filled out with the expected naturalist colors. But other elements of “Lucky You” have a storybook or magic-realist style. The cartoon-like splash, for instance, has been rendered fancifully in an opaque white that makes it look like milk. And there are red stars floating around the capsule, while running across the top is the title, printed out in uppercase letters in the manner of a headline. Penner-Howell has said that he wants to apply absurdity to a number of subjects, and he’s done so here. But he also wants his work to have a sense of hopefulness, and I guess the astronaut splashing down safely qualifies as pretty optimistic.

Walker told me that she’s been thinking about how each of these new group shows comments on the one before. Her January offering, Infinite Layers, was all wintry and white, while Uncanny celebrates the new year and the promise of spring, with bright colors and sometimes lighthearted imagery popping up throughout.

Uncanny, through March 10 at Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue, #A, 303-355-8955,