Abstract Concepts

Robin Rule, director of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, is on cloud nine, thanks to the nine abstract paintings that make up the gorgeous Dale Chisman: New Paintings exhibit that just opened at Rule. Not only is this show an aesthetic triumph for Chisman, the well-known contemporary master, but it's also been a smashing commercial success for the gallery, with a number of the paintings selling even before last Friday night's opening.

Of course, this is hardly a surprise. Chisman is one of the hottest contemporary painters in the region today and has been for pretty much the past decade. Born in Denver and raised in the west-side neighborhood where he now maintains his studio, Chisman is the rare local artist who has been successful in the art world without forsaking his roots--at least not permanently.

Nearly forty years ago, as a student at North High School, Chisman studied with the late Denver modernist Martha Epp. Just after graduating from North in 1961, he attended the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, where he worked with the great Mary Chenoweth. The influence of Chenoweth's sketchy, geometric style remains with Chisman to this day. Chisman next went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he received his BFA in 1965 and his MFA in 1969. Having completed his studies at Boulder, he left soon after for New York, where he found almost immediate success. Chisman remained in the Big Apple for more than fifteen years but chose to return to Denver in 1984. At that time, he was known in town to only a handful of his contemporaries in the art scene. That soon changed, however, and with his exhibits in the mid-'80s at Pirate, Chisman became lionized as one of the state's best artists.

The exhibit at Rule is Chisman's first solo painting show since the winter of 1995. But that doesn't mean he's been out of sight. In the years since his last show at Rule, he's been the subject of a one-man print show at 1/1 Gallery, and his works have been included in several prestigious group shows, including one at the Denver Art Museum and another at the inaugural exhibition for Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art.

The current Rule show begins with a small, quirky painting that can be seen through the gallery's large front windows even before the viewer enters. As revealed by its title, the oil on linen "Self Portrait After Miro" is meant as an homage to the late, great Spanish modernist, Joan Miro. Chisman's palette, dominated by ocher and black but including touches of red and blue, takes off from Miro's signature color scheme. And the gestural and organic lines Chisman employs also suggest the sensibility and abstract-surrealist style associated with Miro.

"Self Portrait" has an indefinite background that's been subtly marked with graphite doodles. On top of this, Chisman has used heavy black pigment to create a somewhat whimsical image of a person--essentially a circle with eyeballs. Chisman says he came up with the idea recently while in Barcelona, where he came across a 1940 Miro that featured similar shapes and forms. "Then, in 1960, Miro added this, done in the style he was working in at the time," Chisman adds, pointing to the black cartoonish figure in the center. "And I appropriated it."

The remaining eight paintings are displayed in the main gallery just beyond the entry. Chisman regards this group, along with two other works not seen in the Rule exhibit (one is touring in a show from Wyoming's Nicholaysen Museum; the other is so new it's too wet to move), as a series. But he cautions that "it's not a serious series, where all the paintings look alike, which they don't." In fact, the paintings seem to fall into three broad categories: the oldest, which are dark with archetypal shapes; a middle group, in which the paintings are light and linear; and the last group, whose works are dark and include both shapes and lines. What links this disparate collection, according to Chisman, is "a brighter color sense than before, with a simplification of the forms. There are a lot of new elements, yet they seem familiar to me." And he's right. These recent paintings are both daringly new and unmistakably Chisman.

The first painting Chisman completed in the series is "Seven Notes," a large oil on linen from 1997 that hangs by itself on the back wall. The five-foot square panel is mostly red; Chisman has used bright, vibrant tones toward the center and then darkened them with black at the edges, creating an ad hoc frame. Graphite has been used to draw sketchy passages against the red surface that vaguely suggest leaves, vessels and the human figure.

On the surface of "Seven Notes," Chisman has laid a big chartreuse smear and two dark-blue shapes in the forms of a double gourd and a teardrop. The effect, which marks a new direction for Chisman, is marvelous. The strongly colored shapes stand hard against the subtle, recessive ground, lending an awkward balance to the picture. It's an unlikely combination that shows up in several of the other pieces in this show.

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