Earthly Delights

It may be tempting for viewers to lump all abstract paintings that feature drips, runs, scratches and splashes into the abstract-expressionist camp. But look before you leap to any conclusions. Making the point that not all expressionist abstracts are abstract-expressionist are the nearly twenty gorgeous oils in the exhibit Sam Scott: New Paintings, which closes this weekend at the Robischon Gallery.

Abstract-expressionist works are supposed to be nonobjective--their only subject the nature of painting and paint. But Scott always takes as his subject something in the outside world, typically something from nature. This puts his paintings in the tradition of the post-impressionists, household names such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul CŽzanne and Claude Monet, who worked in France in the late nineteenth century--and whom art historians now speak of in the same breath as da Vinci and Rembrandt.

It's not surprising to learn that Scott's artistic career was launched in 1950, when, at the age of ten, he first caught sight of van Gogh's "Cypresses" at the Chicago Art Institute. And the paintings at Robischon still reflect van Gogh's influence, especially in the dense and manic brushwork and the genuine three-dimensional quality of the paint.

This is not to suggest that Scott traveled a straight line from his boyhood glimpse of "Cypresses" to his current, mature abstract style. On the way, he worked in a variety of media, including sculpture and blown glass. He also absorbed a number of widely varied aesthetic influences, ranging from Italian master Giotto to the work of both North and South American Indian tribes--and, by the way, the abstract-expressionists.

And in each case, Scott had firsthand experience. He lived and studied art in Italy. He worked on the Cheyenne River Indian reservation in South Dakota and spent time with the Mackiratari Indians of Brazil. And in the late 1960s, while a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he studied with famous abstract-expressionists Clyfford Still and Philip Guston (though Guston, like Scott, would soon afterward leave the style behind).

Shortly after completing his studies in Baltimore in 1969, the artist arrived in Santa Fe, where, save for a five-year stint in Arizona, he has maintained a home and studio ever since. When he reached the renowned Southwestern art colony, Scott found employment as a construction worker, a bartender and a bouncer, among other odd jobs he took to support his painting habit. By the early 1970s he was established as one of New Mexico's premier abstract artists; his work was featured in annual exhibits at Santa Fe's most prestigious commercial galleries, and, in 1974, he was given a solo exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico. A decade later, Scott's fame spread to Denver, where he became known to the local art world through several single-artist shows--first at the now-defunct Sebastian-Moore Gallery and presently, for the third time since 1988, at the Robischon Gallery.

When we enter Robischon, the exhibition's promise of new paintings is borne out by the smell of oil paint and linseed oil that wafts through the gallery. Some of the paintings actually appear to still be wet--and they are. But even those that have had a year or two to dry (some paintings date back to 1994) display a shiny, wet-looking surface.

Several of Scott's lyrical paintings look nonobjective but are really landscapes. In the oil-on-canvas "High Mountain Meadow I" and its equally fine companion "High Mountain Meadow II," the artist lays down a field layer that is thinly painted in places and very densely painted in others. Against this light-colored ground of beige, cream, gold and other earth tones, Scott has "drawn" scribbled shapes that don't represent--but do evoke--the twigs, leaves and flowers of the meadows. He uses certain shapes over and over to suggest these natural elements: meandering lines for twigs, loosely formed circles for leaves and flattened ovals for flowers. The two paintings also include a suggestion of the horizon and even a patch of blue sky. But the viewer still has to carefully deconstruct them to see the meadows of the titles.

Two other oil-on-canvas works appear to be landscapes--broadly speaking, at least. Like the "Mountain Meadow" pair, "Each Day Is God" and "Pollen Dance" display a layer of painted scribbles over an unevenly applied color field. But both are notably darker and more heavily painted than the two "Meadow" works.

That heavy application of dark paint is the principal attribute of the luscious "Forest Spirits," which seems to refer more directly to its subject than most of the large paintings included here. The viewer can easily make out the trunks of the trees and the leaves that Scott has fleshed out with brown, black and lots of green. Scott employs a variety of green shades, from celadon to billiard and everything in between.

Not all the Scott paintings at Robischon are abstract landscapes--some take on topics such as music or the Bronze Age. He also has addressed the still-life tradition with some easy-to-read depictions of fruit in a bowl. But whatever topic Scott's working on, there's a comforting sameness to these works, all of which are proud additions to a seamless oeuvre.

A block down Wazee Street at the CSK Gallery is another solo show, this one showcasing the work of a longtime Denver artist. Mark Dickson: New Works on Canvas and Paper, closing this weekend, also features abstracts inspired by the landscape (or, perhaps more accurately, by Dickson's own earlier abstractions of the landscape).

Dickson's exhibit includes only three paintings, which have been supplemented by more than a score of prints. Some of these prints, most of which are altered monotypes, have been pulled on-site at CSK's Graphic Atelier; the others are from Dickson's personal print studio. The paintings and the prints are all untitled.

In the three paintings, Dickson juxtaposes hard-edged geometric shapes with soft-focused organic ones. The paint has been thickly applied as though troweled on with a knife. And Dickson has toned up his colors, which he arranges in sometimes startling combinations. The best painting here sets orange against teal and raspberry, a successful color scheme with a jarring effect.

The same hard-to-soft tension is created in the prints, all beautifully done and more consistently fine than Dickson's paintings. But while the paintings make reference to the horizon, reminding the viewer that Dickson's subject is the landscape, the prints are less clearly related to terra firma--with the exception of one older piece that looks like an aerial shot of a grid of farm fields. In fact, these prints are essentially constructivist compositions, made up of vaguely geometric forms offset by drawn spirals and zigzags in crayon or pastel.

Considering the great antipathy many contemporary artists show for the tradition of landscape painting, it's more than a little interesting to find two abstract artists who have embraced it. Even if Scott and Dickson arrive at very different destinations, both begin at the same place: in the landscape of the mind's eye.

Sam Scott: New Paintings, through March 2 at the Robischon Gallery, 11740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

Mark Dickson: New Works on Canvas and Paper, through March 2 at CSK Gallery, 1637 Wazee Street, 436-9236.

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