At Abend Gallery, Colfax and York, Denver, CO
reviewed by Felissia Cappelletti (January 2016)
Behind the Veil (oil, 42 x 36 in., 2015), Julie Bell
I knew even before stepping inside that I was going to have a good time tonight. Colorful canvases and a sizable crowd on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows invite us in. And blast! right off the bat -- babe dancing with zebras. Tonight we’re here to dissolve our humanity a little bit, bend the picket line between man and beast. Are you domestic, majestic, or wild? Animalia at Abend.
Ecstasy, fury, and madness scramble together in a tumult of detail so convincing it looks like a photo shot during an especially wild episode of America’s Next Top Model involving a challenge with zoo creatures. It is Julie Bell’s Behind the Veil. Bell’s got eight other works in this show and they’re all warm and carefully expressed, exhibiting fine skill in a realism romanticized.
Once past the tumult of zebras, an initial turn about the gallery proves that this show is not a one-trick pony. Exquisite images, both familiar and fantasy, fill the large, three-room space. There are comfy, domestic images; Clyde Steadman’s much-larger-than-life kitty face peers at us through extra-thick brushstrokes. The effect of those strokes on the canvas makes me think of static. Makes sense since this keen-eyed fur-face (who I happen to know was named Jonas) probably would have left white hairs all over me – but Steadman’s fluffy line-work and close-and-cuddly cropping makes me want to burrow my face into this Long Haired Domestic Tabby anyway.
Long-Haired Domestic Tabby (oil, 48 x 60 in., 2015), Clyde Steadman
Thibault Jandot’s snappy modern impressionist Woodcock is a-bumble with quick-paced lines and jabs of brush. The effect on canvas is ‘fleeting,’ as would be the experience of spying this hoppy little squat-necked bird on a mudbank amidst flies.
Woodcock (oil, 11.75 x 11.75 in.), Thibault Jandot
Then, there are the more majestic creatures: oxen, bison, lions, a bioluminescent pond frog, museum-quality butterflies overlaid on lacy patterned backdrops. Each one communicating something of that quiet dignity, that intrinsic beauty of those non-homo-sapiens members of our Scientific Kingdom.Yet, the term Animalia does include the human being as well. It’s be-fitting that we see some examples of humans and animals sharing the frame. One of my personal favorites is called King of the Castle and was painted by Linda Brandon. It’s a relatively small, somewhat simple piece. A young girl gazes, defiant with confidence, down at us, protected by the guardian angel (/playmate?) at her shoulder. Like most pieces of art, you have to see it in person to feel its special gravity.
King of the Castle (oil, 20 in. tondo, 2014), Linda Brandon
And of course there are several species mash-ups including Rory Coyne’s nude horse-headed lady in Turning Seven and Dana Hawk’s clever Party Animal, a money-chomping, despondent-looking elephant-headed donkey.
While wandering, I notice the down-tempo electro-acoustic music coming from two guitarists in the corner, Brian Knapp and Ted Kleist, who are improvising every song. This duo knows how to groom an ambience! The music is sociable, not too interruptive, but thoughtful, and buzzing with just enough energy to keep the vibe mingling and lively, floating above the canvases. And as far as the company is concerned, I’m meeting a fair amount of pretty fabulous mammals tonight. The watering hole (a.k.a., open bar) is a hub of conversation and connection.
Speaking of conversation, I had a lovely one with co-curator Connor Serr, who told me Abend was established in 1990 and until quite recently, had a reputation for hanging mostly conservative, ‘classical’ styles of fine art. I can still see the influence of this conventional value, which clearly served its purpose in keeping that gallery open for over two decades. Several pieces here tonight fit comfortably inside the realm of conventional fine art.
But new management is broadening these horizons by including work outside of the classically representational techniques. Pieces like David Rice’s Lake House, and Erich J Moffitt’s Resplendent Sisters, both of which exist outside conventional fine art standards because of their imaginary elements, such as Moffitt’s strange zodiacal map, and the unusual combination of techniques used by Rice. He includes a modern-representational method in the foreground, a flattened, simplified perspective in the mid-ground, and leaves the backdrop to loose impressionism, even ‘chinking’ the outside edges of the canvas to create a feeling of age and impermanence. Rice’s careful use of red in “Lake House” balances and enhances the image, especially because the subtler tones of grey-blues, browns, and creams keep the image so still and peaceful.
Resplendent Sisters (acrylic 20 x 16 in., 2015) Erich J. Moffitt
Lake House (acrylic, 24, 36 in., 2015) David Rice
As a writer and insatiable reader, my favorite type of art is that which evokes stories. I want to look at a single image and imagine the context of that image, I want it to make me wonder what’s going on…how did we get here? Rice’s “Lake House” does this for me, as do many of the pieces in this show.
I’ll give you another example,“Lunalge by Vanessa Foley. I am enraptured by this piece. I wonder if the hare and the butterflies are racing, or was the hare just sitting, minding its own business when a kaleidoscope of butterflies came and plucked him up? It’s dreamlike and lovely, and might belong to a fairy tale.
Lunalge (oil, 11 x 14 in., 2015) Vanessa Foley
Besides the Animalia show going on, there is another room filled with Additional Works, equal in quality and general aesthetic flavor to those in the other rooms. I can tell the artists chosen to hang in this gallery are probably classically trained, skilled in representational art, but with a modern breath which includes aspects of imaginative fantasy, humor, and visual tricks that register as most certainly modern. Three quick examples are; the double-exposure technique seen in Sara Study by Jane Radstrom, the scratchy, blotchy mess interfering with a semi-finished portrait as we see in Imprint No. 59 by John Wentz, and the photo-filter effect captured very nicely by Meghan Howland in Sterling.
Imprint No, 59 (oil, 42 x 36 in., 2015) John Wentz
Sara Study (oil, 8 x 8 in., 2015) Jane Radstrom
Sterling (oil, 36 x 30, 2015) Meghan Howland
It excites me to see galleries like Abend beginning to embrace an updated definition of fine art. For, the quality of the aforementioned pieces, and many others I see here tonight, are most definitely of ‘fine art’ quality, although not of the standard ‘pensive nude,’ ‘watercolor landscape,’ or ‘bowl of fruit,’ genres. Imaginative images intrigue and attract newer, younger viewers who may otherwise feel alienated by ‘bourgy’ pieces, or simply disinterested by the previous status quo of what galleries and museums had to offer.
As generations change, aesthetics change. We are a graphic generation. The generation of Photoshop and cartoons-for-adults. That isn’t to say we see beauty only in things that are flatly outside of reality, only that our eyes appreciate an extension of reality. I can only speak for myself here, but when a painting looks like life, often it doesn’t hold much of a narrative. I see what the artist saw. Now, when the painting expresses a vantage point other than that of a camera lens, as many of the pieces I have mentioned in this article do, these have stories, questions. They also show that the artist has a handle on multiple techniques. Many images in this show have realistic functions in them, but most have something else as well. An unfamiliar flavor, a unique hand, stretching beyond the known and showing the world not as it is, but as it is imagined, which is, I think, one of the most handsome functions of art – if not always, then perhaps, beginning now.
Animalia will become extinct after March 5th, so take wing to Abend Gallery at 2260 E. Colfax in Denver and experience this beautiful show for yourself!
--The End --