“Colorado Women in Abstraction” sets the bar high at the front door of the Center for Visual Art. There are 32 artists in the show, but the first ones you encounter are legends.
There are works from the late and influential Mary Chenoweth, stretching from 1950 to 1990, and all of them get at the power of abstraction to break the rules and tease perceptions. As an artist, Chenoweth was right the middle of things, creating and teaching during the mid-20th century height of the most American of styles, and her oil paintings are of the time, full of bright colors and intersecting shapes, loaded with energy and empowered with personal assertiveness.
Alongside those are lush, bronze-coated steel sculptures by co-pioneer Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder; daring, flat-paneled metal totems, both simple and spiritual, by Barbara Locketz; and Nadine Drummond’s paint on top of paint oil canvases that imply dark and ambiguous, internal landscapes.
These works (mostly, and not surprisingly, on loan from the Colorado-riffic Kirkland Museum) are downright historic, and they open the door to all that comes next, an impressive mix of efforts from women making art today. The current crop doesn’t always keep pace with the lasting strides of their foremothers, but they indulge, with real honor, in the freedom those pivotal efforts granted.
Guest Curator Michael Paglia draws a line from Chenoweth right to Amy Metier, whose more current oil paintings shock with oranges, yellows and blues and are more concerned with balancing physical and emotional perceptions than presenting any clear imagery. It’s an indirect line, no doubt: Chenoweth worked in chunks of color and distinct forms; Metier’s hues contrast, but melt into each other and are applied with a drippy zest. But that’s exactly what makes the show interesting — that you can map from where things started and to many of the places they’ve traveled.
There’s pleasure in seeing how Sabin Aell works beyond the boundaries of canvas and pedestal, her installation of “Glamorbird” pieces has her painting directly on the walls, then layering outward with plexiglass shapes and deconstructed parts from a piano. She even turns a corner giving the work added dimension. It’s loaded with sharp contrasts, from black to white, natural to plastic, and full of its own murky symbols — another dotted line back to Chenoweth.
By contrast, Marks Aardsma turns inward. She declines to add any paint at all to her raw canvases and instead picks apart the fibers within the fabric to create patters of simple thread. It’s an updated, and labor intensive, nod to the ground-breaking Spatialist artists of nearly a century ago, who simply slashed at their canvases to challenge notions of color and space.
If anything separates the current artists from the past, it’s their willingness to embrace technology and cut across media in a way their processors resisted. This show isn’t quite up-to-date with today’s artistic output. It seems surprisingly unaware of the ways that digital art, video, interactive installation and 3-D printing are defining creativity today. In that way, it could have really cut a path to the present.
But it does take viewers to place that is diverse and open-minded enough to accept many forms of art-making as credible. This show ranges from Sophia Dixon Dillo’s’ plugged-in light boxes to Martha Russo’s porcelain assemblages to Jane Guthridge’s Dura-Lar cutouts (it’s a high-tech material, kind of like Mylar). Those things are proudly set beside the abstract techniques you’d expect, such as the infinitely interesting oils of Ania Gola-Kumor and Trine Bumiller; Teresa Booth Brown’s collages; and Nancy Lovendahl’s earthy constructions made from things like limestone, honeycomb and calcite.
And a few artists seem to embrace it all at once. Sculptor Linda Fleming works with equal agility in powder-coated steel and recycled sections of wooden architecture. By switching back and forth between machine-made and hand-built materials, she forces viewers to see new relationships between objects and the space they occupy, and on top of that, the time periods in which they were made.
The work cuts across history and style in a way that represents the full intent of “Colorado Women in Abstraction.” There was innovation at the dawn of this new age and that set the course for art as we know it today. Abstraction freed artists to be individuals, and this show features 32 of them.
“Colorado Women in Abstraction” runs through October 1, at the Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive. Always free 303-294-5207 or msudenver.edu/cva.