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Making Meaning 

Tri-Lakes Center showcases abstract works by six artists

As you walk in the doorway of the former Kaiser-Fraser dealership in Palmer Lake, Liz Szabo's 7-foot-tall sculpture, "Unprotected," offers up a second doorway into the Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts' inviting space.

A sentry of sorts for the show Six Degrees of Abstraction, "Unprotected" greets viewers with a characteristic of good contemporary art -- a solipsistic confidence that is at once enticing and aloof. (Perhaps this sounds like someone you know!)

This "character" is one I have grown to love over many years of reckoning with contemporary art. In Six Degrees of Abstraction, the paintings and sculptures of six talented Colorado Springs artists possess artistic auras that don't waste our time prattling about preciosity and value (the connoisseur's fascination). Instead, they bluntly query to anyone willing to overhear the at times confounding discourse of contemporary art: "What is the nature of human perception, and how do we make meaning in this world of ours?"

No doubt, you'll have your own conversations with these works, including the occasional "I don't get it."

My advice for that one-way commentary is to get past it and figure something out, because each of these artists, in her or his degree of abstraction, is provoking us to converse with the works. Perhaps this is the simultaneous pain and pleasure of abstraction: We as viewer must generate the conversation with the object.

It is not a canned chat, like, say, the one we have with the great portraits by John Singer Sargent (which I saw in Boston recently). These works are so squarely contextualized in the history of their subjects and their day that there isn't much room to converse, except perhaps to say, "Nice dress!" to Mme. Gatreau. We can admire them, but they do not confront or confuse us, as do many of the works in Six Degrees of Abstraction.

Lenore McKerlie's paintings are at once ancient and immediate. In their layered and burnished surfaces, they echo the Paleolithic cave art of Lascaux, richly painted in earth tones, filled with blurred-edged forms suggesting animals in motion. "I evoke an atmosphere of the aerial overview of landscape and employ variously chosen symbols and shapes to represent groupings, or 'herds,' gathered near sheltering places," states the artist. McKerlie's mark-making is complex and cartographic, her paintings represent a symbolically-charged topography of her environmentalist concerns fused with her interests in abstract art, as is evident in her 1998 work "Synapses," whose hovering forms evoke Kandinsky, "godfather" of abstract expressionism.

Painter Dawn Wilde explores the visual semiotics of the "golden section" in several beautifully-executed canvases, while her large unframed canvas, "Boat," which depicts an empty rowboat rocking over silvery waves, entices us with the glitter of the real. (She suspends nine fishing lures into the lower edge of her canvas.) We are taken past the surface of this conceptual work, hooked like a trout by the juxtaposition of dimensions.

Louis Cicotello's three "Mountainscape" sculptures also explore the contrast of materials and ideas. "I am interested in the clash of opposites. ... I collect and use materials, images, objects in a way that expresses the contradictions and oppositions I consider inherent in contemporary existence," states Cicotello. The precision of assembly argues with the roughness of materials, from immaculate rocks that cling like barnacles to old railroad ties, to shovels that emerge flawlessly from a stone base -- a worker's Excalibur. Cicotello's message is minimalism with a conscience: He fuses the fossils and icons of Colorado's past and present to give us an uncertain future: Will our mountains turn to Formica, cleaved by human machinery and indifference -- or not?

In "Kosovo I and II," Betty Ross represents the devastation and brutality of war -- and even its perpetual hope. "My basis is the world," Ross has said. In these acrylic paintings, the relation of abstraction and reality once again occupy her, as seen in the strong, black lines that crisscross her two canvases like scars, deep reds caught beneath their chaos. Kosovo as the trash bin of human life was the dominant metaphor Ross contemplated while painting these works, a disturbing and true image she arrived at from reading daily coverage on the war, as well as from her own writings, which served as an alternative way of reckoning with the world (though, for Ross, the acts of painting and writing are complementary).

The north wall of the Tri-Lakes exhibition, like Szabo's sentry, is another visual emblem of the show and the interaction of illusion and reality. Five of Kay Johnson's untitled paintings alternate with windows of roughly the same size, composing a "series" that states, as do Johnson's canvases: "We exist in multiple realities." Johnson refers to her juxtaposition of heads, color fields, words and objects as "structured flux." These are not abstract works in a traditional sense, in that she draws on forms from the outside world, as well as forms from inside. "Abstraction for me is rooted in visual reality," Johnson says, but, she continues, "I am not dealing with a single viewpoint in my work, but multiple and co-existing viewpoints, about mental constructs, not just recordings of visual reality."

Her postmodern works are compelling and very much about the confluence of images and realities that constitute the complexity of the 1990s, icons of our millenial turn. "Ha ha," one work laughs at (or with) us, while a head in profile is both mannequin and human. In another, a Japanese geisha floats soundlessly across a plane of color, sharing the surface with a still life and a sculptural head, reminiscent of Picasso's African sources at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

Across the room, her small oil on wood of a man with a shaved head can be seen spitting difficult wisdoms in a calligraphic utterance that resembles an inverted pi. He seems to paraphrase visually what Johnson succinctly tells me: "Contemporary art is the place where you don't understand everything -- you have to be game for that conversation."

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