Nine Artists, which opened last week at downtown's posh Bryan & Scott Fine Art Galleries, breaks new ground for serious contemporary artists in Colorado Springs. For the first time that I can recall, their work is being shown in an upscale commercial venue, in this case one that usually features fine jewelry, antiques and significant artwork by the safely dead.
Bryan & Scott's proprietor, Roberto Agnolini, has made a living for decades by acquiring and selling exquisite objects. It should be no surprise, then, that he's chosen some of the best contemporary artists in the region for this show.
The work is displayed in an upstairs gallery, together with Bryan & Scott's usual stock in trade. If anything, the exhibition is even livelier and more interesting in such unexpected surroundings. Imagine a couple of Sean O'Meallie assemblages perched on a matched pair of 19th-century Chinese huang hua li stands; or how about a spectacular group of paintings by Laurel Swab, hung next to a full-sized, gilt bronze seated Buddha from 18th-century Thailand?
In a previous life, O'Meallie must have been a shipwright or a carpenter, who, in his spare time, carved wonderful things -- whirligigs, pull toys -- to delight his grandchildren. O'Meallie's wooden sculptures are sweet and whimsical, and not in the least bit cloying or sentimental. Turned, carved and often gaily painted, they're accessible, delightful and, in this show at least, omnipresent. Happily, they're still affordable, if you're willing to settle for a smaller piece. I particularly liked "Copyright," a simple carved C in a circle, small but perfect, and yours for less than dinner for two at a snooty restaurant. And if you're feeling flush, you might want to spring for "'The Little Caisson," a magical reinvention of a 19th-century pull toy.
Betty Ross is certainly one of the minences grises of the Colorado Springs art community. She's been making art for almost 50 years, and has spent that time well. Her work is particular, individual, highly refined and, in some ways, very traditional. That doesn't mean that she's a paint-by-numbers realist -- far from it. She works in, and continues, the tradition of some of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. You can see echoes of Willem de Kooning (who painted Betty's portrait as a young woman), of Richard Diebenkorn, of Lee Krasner, even of Clyfford Still.
Ross has three large canvases on display. One, "Garden of the Gods," hovers at the boundary between pure abstraction and figuration, as does much of Betty's work. It's very far from the traditional gateway view; here, Pikes Peak, swirling, cloudy, a cold vessel of light, utterly eclipses the Garden of the Gods, a few indistinct brush strokes. The other two, "Saintes Maries de la Mer" numbers 1 and 2, are joyous, splashy abstracts, full of light and motion, the artist's response to a new and challenging environment. These are three fine and lovely paintings, the work of a mature artist in full command of her medium and with a sure and certain sense of what she wants to do with it.
We've reviewed Jean Gumpper's lyrical, beautiful woodcut prints before -- and I've run out of superlatives. If you're not familiar with Gumpper's work, go see it. And if you are, go see it again. These are not your grandfather's woodblock prints; they're extremely large (typically, 2 feet by 3 feet), sometimes brilliantly colored works, usually depicting close-up details of the natural world -- willows reflected in a quiet patch of water, or autumn leaves, or light and shadow, water and leaves. I'd guess that Gumpper's inspiration comes from the great Japanese printmakers of the 18th century: Hiroshige (whose "Moon Seen through Maple Leaves" might have been done by Gumpper) and Hokusai (ditto for "Bullfinch and Drooping Cherry"). Like the work of those great masters, Gumpper's work is calm, meditative and radiant.
The extraordinarily talented Swab, who for may years produced interesting, quirky and, not to put too fine a point on it, minor work, has fulfilled her promise. Swab has three strange and exciting pieces in the show, all big, technically masterful and powerful. I particularly liked "Magdelene," a partially draped nude female figure lying on an indeterminate surface before a dark, spectacularly rendered sunset sky. It's as if Salvador Dali, Albert Bierstadt, and Balthus had jointly created a painting.
That's four of nine artists; and the other five are just as interesting. This is a fine show more than worthy of a stroll through the imposing front gallery of the store whose street-front window you've probably admired for years (remember the ceramic pig in the basket?), but whose aisles you might not have perused. Take the plunge, climb the stairs and admire the work of nine of the region's finest artists.
-- John Hazlehurst
Works by Mary Armour, Carol Dass, Jean Gumpper, Pard Morrison, Sean O'Meallie, Betty Ross, Barbara Sparks, Laurel Swab and Rita Zimmerman
Bryan & Scott Fine Art Galleries, 112-114 N. Tejon St., upstairs gallery
Through Sept. 9