When gallery director Gerry Riggs got the chance to bring a national show exhibiting the work of 15 couples whose art reaches a mutually high standard, he jumped at the chance. Together/Working, the touring version, includes the work of such well-known painters and sculptors as New Realist Jack Beal, Pattern and Decoration artists Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff, Neo-Expressionist Juan Usle and "Bad Painting" adherent Judith Linhares.
The 30 pieces in the national show present a delightful variety of medium and form resulting from the selection of the work partially on the basis of its relationship to another artist. Several of the works are inspiring in their complexity and appeal. Indeed, those 30 works constitute an exhibit that many would conclude demand a gallery space entirely its own.
Undaunted by the magnitude of the national body of work, however, Riggs has expanded the show to include contributions from 15 regional artist couples. Instead of diluting the quality of the national artists' entries, Riggs' selections are often more engaging even than the national work. Contributions from local artists such as Ken and Tina Riesterer, and Sushi and Tracy Felix, largely succeed in bringing additional depth to the exhibit.
The point of the show, however, is not to assess the relative merit of national and regional artists but to compare and contrast the submissions of each couple, and that can be an instructive and enjoyable experience. Each pairing of artists' work is hung in proximity so that the observer can make his or her assessment conveniently. But similarities, when they exist, are almost never readily apparent.
Jack Beal's lithograph "Landscape" presents affinities in medium, color, subject and even size to his mate Sondra Freckelton's "Garden Landscape."
Much more often, however, the couples work in diverse media and are disinclined to see a concrete relation between their work. Asked about similarities in color between the untitled collage of Colorado Springs artist Zareh Maranian and "Cilicia," a two-dimensional, mixed-media piece done by his wife Ani, Zareh groped for a connection. "We eat the same food," he said with a laugh.
Salida artist Mel Strawn says that critics look too hard to find connections between his largely computer-based art and that of his sculptor wife's organically based work.
Bea Strawn's "Spirit Boat II" is reminiscent of five aspen-strip figures she recently created to hang from the rafters of the new REI flagship store in Denver. Her brilliant three-dimensional piece is overtly organic with a framework canoe cradled to the wall by three forked aspen branches. Mel's brightly colored, two-dimensional "Cibola" combines a triad of optically vibrating images ranging from primitive finger painting to abstract digital art.
But Riggs says that, whether the artists see it or not, there are threads of continuity to be found in the Strawns' work. "They have the same sensibilities of color, as well as the same formal concerns," he explained. "And they both use organic symbolism. They just work in different mediums."
The work of Eric and Mary Ann Bransby also presents a challenge to the viewer attempting to discern harmonies of expression. Both Bransbys studied with Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City during the '40s. But while muralist Eric's "Storming of the Arsenal" is frankly evocative of Benton's "American Scene" work, Mary Ann's landscape "Island in the Sky" is much more abstract.
Still, the astute observer may pick up on the same subtle connection pointed out by Mary Ann. "The common denominator is the enormous amount of time we have both spent in drawing figures," she said. Mary Ann sees and uses the same human shapes in the scenes of nature she paints. "We have similar influences," she said "We just translate them in different ways."
The couples also maintain differing levels of artistic interaction with their partners, although, generally, each couple strives to retain individuality in method of creation as well as the media of their work. The Bransbys have gone so far as to bring in two Army surplus mess halls that serve as separate studio spaces.
"We have purposefully tried to go different ways," Mary Ann explained. "We don't even share pencils."
The Maranians also pursue their creative processes in separate studios, although there is apparently some limited exchange of materials. They clearly enjoy kidding each other about their differences.
"We cannot work together," Zareh said. "We are very different. She wants me to be more in control and artistically proper, but I think you have to just let it go sometimes. Ani is more exacting and meticulous."
"And cleaner," Ani said. "We cannot even borrow brushes. ... I wouldn't be able to use them again if he did," she said with laugh.
Ani says she sometimes collects found objects for her husband's work. "He will say, 'I don't think this will be possible,' or 'I don't like this,' when he sees it," she said. "And then I find it in his work."
Each couple seems to handle the question of criticizing their partner's work in a different way. "We don't formally sit down and discuss it," said Bea Strawn. "We've both been teachers and we don't need another teacher."
"You have to say to yourself, 'That's the way his sensibility works and that's OK,'" she added.
Conversely, things can get a bit dicey when the Maranians talk about their art. "We tell each other the truth without being very nice," Ani said. "And the victim doesn't always take it very kindly. Then, other things start to come in."
"Honey, we aren't talking to the psychiatrist," Zareh points out.
Two things that seem to be common themes between many of the artist couples is that they met through art, and, over the years, they have come to have common tastes in the artwork of others.
Both Ani and Zareh find that when they go gallery hopping separately, they come home talking about the same works of art. "We do admire the same artists," Zareh Maranian said, "and we do appreciate the same type of art more."
Finally, most of the couples seem to derive a certain strength from the fact that they are not alone in their pursuit of artistic excellence. "Artists need spiritual partners to keep them bolstered," Bea Strawn said. "In the mad world of art, it's hard to keep going without that."
Together/Working is one of those exhibitions that seems to have a multitude of facets and levels that can appeal to the sensibilities of viewers with many backgrounds and experiences. The fact that the local artists' work compares so favorably with that of their "national" counterparts is a testament to the fact that Colorado Springs enjoys an art culture out of proportion to its modest size. This is a show that should not be missed by anyone remotely interested in the local art scene or in the intricacies of contemporary art in general.
If you can't make it to the show, which runs until Friday, Dec. 1, 2000, the works of the regional artists can be found on the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art Web site at www.harpy.uccs. edu/gallery/togetherworking.htm.