According to conventional wisdom, mathematicians and musicians do their best work in their 20s, and then fade away to irrelevance. Einstein first conceived the theory of relativity at the ripe old age of 23; Brian Wilson was 28 when he created Pet Sounds. Lennon and McCartney, Heisenberg, Newton, and Fermat -- it's hard to think of a composer, or a mathematician or physicist, who did his or her best work in late middle age.
The visual arts are different. William Henry Jackson, the great photographer of the American West, did an extraordinary series of paintings, certainly his best work in that medium, in his 90s. Toward the end of his long life, Picasso created a series of erotic drawings and prints that are among his best work. Closer to home, Mary Chenoweth, whose retrospective exhibition was recently featured at the Fine Arts Center, was doing powerful, dazzlingly original work in her early 80s.
If musicians burn, quickly exhausting their talent, then artists build, mastering their chosen media, learning from their successes and failures. By the time they've been at it for a quarter of a century or so, they should be at the top of their game. For artists who began their creative life in the 1970s, that's right now.
Three such artists are featured in an exhibition through June 30 at the Warehouse Gallery in downtown Colorado Springs: photographer Elaine Bean, weaver Jean Steiner and painter Tom Leech.
Elaine Bean has been an accomplished professional photographer since the early '70s, when she served as the still photographer for John Waters, whose films (cult favorites then and now) include Pink Flamingos. One photograph in the Warehouse exhibit dates from that period: a sly and cheerful image of a surprised Divine in the bathtub.
But most of the work that Bean has chosen for this exhibition is much newer, and much more interesting. Bean, a graphic artist by trade, has abandoned the traditional darkroom and now uses a computer to create her images. Here's how she describes the process:
"I begin by taking a photograph, using a manual Nikon film camera. The film is processed in the usual way. Selected photographs are scanned and written to CD-ROM as raw high-resolution images. I then use a Macintosh G4 computer to manipulate the photograph -- adjusting contrast, cropping, enhancing colors, dodging and burning, compositing images, hand coloring, etc. ... The resulting digital files are then sent to Cone Editions in Vermont, a fine arts production facility."
Cone Editions then collaborates with Elaine to produce giclee prints which, according to the artist, are the "new standard" in fine arts printing.
The computer allows Bean to manipulate images in ways that were heretofore unimaginable. I particularly liked "Pueblo Depot," an interior shot of the '30s-era lunch counter at the historic Pueblo Union Station. Bean started with a color photograph, and converted most of the image into a moody black and white, film noir image, leaving only the counter's glowing red neon sign in color.
For someone so comfortable with manipulated images, Bean is curiously rigid in her use of light, the photographer's paintbox. She uses only natural light, often refracted through glass, or through water. This gives her photographs of objects as ordinary as a leaf, or a feather, a translucent, other-worldly quality. Like remembered dreams, there but not there, not quite part of the material world, Elaine's creations remain mysterious and elusive. On one level, they're simple, appealing and straightforward; on another, jarring and evocative. I particularly liked "Victor," a complex image of a car's hood, a dim city street, and another building reflected in a window. The car, apparently a '50s-era Plymouth, gleams as if newly restored. In fact, according to Elaine, it was a wreck -- she used her computer to straighten out the dents, polish the chrome and repaint it.
Jean Steiner, a professor at Colorado College, has been a weaver for thirty years, and it shows. Her latest work is technically stunning, and esthetically amazing. Using a 16-harness loom, Steiner creates a geometric matrix of descending squares that frame a ground of square "pockets" -- a few strands of yarn holding collages, marbled paper or monotype prints. These individual works, in aggregates of 16, 32 or 64, form unified images, in much the same way that Chuck Close creates a portrait. The resulting artwork, which melds printmaking and weaving, is a joy to behold.
Steiner's work is rarely seen in Colorado Springs, even though she lives here. Why? Because she's too good; most of her work goes directly to a gallery in Chicago where it flies out the door. All the more reason for local uber-collectors to hustle on down to the Warehouse and grab one. This is brilliant work -- mature, powerful and masterful.
For this show, UCCS professor Tom Leech has brought a series of new works that are radically different from the coolly abstract marbled handmade paper that he's made in the past. To begin with, these are large-scale diptychs, each panel approximately 6-feet by 3-feet. Each work is based on a repeating, interlocking geometric form, which, reproduced in handmade marbled paper, is mounted on Masonite. The whole is then painted over in so-called interference colors; paint which isn't quite paint, but rather flakes of mica coated with various thicknesses of titanium dioxide. Walk past the paintings, and they change -- in color, in intensity, even in perceived composition. No two people, even standing side by side, can see the same painting. I was there in the late afternoon, when shafts of sunlight caused one of the paintings to explode in shimmering golds. These are wonderful paintings, which would be endlessly interesting to live with. Like Elaine's photographs or Jean's weavings, they're so adept, so complex, and so intellligently conceived that they'd never simply become interior decoration, and disappear on the wall.
Springs native John Venezia is featured in a one-man show at the Bridge Gallery, which opened last Friday. Venezia, an artist at the Business of Arts Center, is a couple of decades younger than the three artists featured at the Warehouse. Nevertheless, he's been working in his particular medium, colored pencil, for 13 years. It's an interesting show, because you see an artist right at the moment of finding his style, his subject and his voice. I particularly liked three pieces: "Summer Daze," "Save a Place for Me," and "Garden of the Gods Silhouette," all done in the past year. The first looks like an affectionate homage to Van Gogh, and the third is a fresh take on Colorado Springs' most hackneyed subject. The second is a peaceful view of Evergreen Cemetery, seen by the artist as a park and a sculpture garden. Venezia bears watching; give him another few years and he may be creating pieces comparable to those of his older peers.
And finally, if you've driven east over the Colorado Avenue bridge in the last week or two, you may have noticed a striking billboard advertising the Royal Gorge Bridge. I'm no fan of billboards -- I tried my damndest to get rid of some of them while on City Council -- but if you're gonna have 'em, they ought to be well-designed. This one, which was created by Manitou Springs artist Michael Baum, is that and more. We may not be a world-class city just now, but at least we've got a world-class billboard.