Particularly noteworthy was his breakthrough Vitti show at Pirate in 1996, where he displayed paintings of antique gowns, some of them hung upside down. But last year, for his annual Pirate outing, Batura threw the art world a curve with Well, a show crammed with his haphazardly installed life's work. At the time, Well seemed like an act of surrender--the title was evocative, but it was unclear whether Batura was referring to a well of creativity or a well of despair. Looking back, Batura says, "I realize now that what I was doing in that show, unconsciously, was creating the Forney Museum at Pirate."
The paintings at the Forney mark a major shift for Batura in terms of subject matter. He has long worked within the still-life tradition, in which objects are depicted intimately and in close-up detail. These new pieces, on the other hand, are landscapes. And unlike the Vitti gown paintings, which featured what Batura calls "empty zones," the recent work is "complicated."
The inspiration for this series of train-wreck paintings was an archive of photographs taken by Otto Perry, a local train enthusiast who bequeathed them to the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library, where Batura carries on his day job. Batura used illustrations from old books for the images in the Vitti series, so it's not surprising to find him using archival material as a source in these new paintings. In the Perry archive, Batura says, "there are sixty or seventy photographs of train wrecks, all of them regional scenes, but with little information of where or when"--which was fine by him. "I wasn't interested in the locale or why it happened. Those things weren't important to me. I'm not into tragedy or sadness," he says. Rather, he distances himself from the reality of the scene and uses it not to tell the story of a train wreck, but as a compositional device. As he points out, "The crash gives the landscape scene an abstract quality."
This attribute is obvious in all five of the Batura paintings on display at the Forney (several other small paintings, shown at the opening reception, have since been removed). The first painting, hung high on the wall to the right of the entrance (and apart from the others), is an eight-foot square panel titled "June 26th 1926." Beneath a rose-colored tint, the listing passenger cars create an array of diagonal lines that guide the viewer's sight from the foreground of the picture all the way to the gold stand of trees in the background. Across the bottom is the crash debris; while the crushed metal takes on the character of an abstract-expressionist field, in the context of the rest of the painting, it's wholly representational.
Like the others, this painting has been carried out with casein, a rarely used and all but archaic milk-based pigment, applied to a birch board. It's the casein, according to Batura, that creates the gorgeous flat sheen in these paintings. His use of casein and wood is just the latest example of Batura's interest in off-beat, little-used materials and methods.
Hung even higher and to the left is "November of 1935," one of three paintings displayed on the west wall. In the piece, which measures six by twelve feet, Batura has painted a stack of box cars that have tumbled down a ravine. Once again, the diagonal lines of the wrecked train make for a lively composition with a convincing illusion of depth. But in this painting, the diagonals do not lead the viewer's eye to the back of the picture, as in "June 26th 1926"; instead, they provide a visual ladder to the top.
"Midwinter 1903" is the most conventional painting of the series; at first glance it reads like a traditional landscape. Batura skillfully creates the atmosphere of the frigid scene, with falling snow partly obscuring the forest background. Painted on a six-by-twelve-foot horizontal panel, the wrecked train runs level across the middle, exaggerating the piece's elongated shape.
Another painting that's also pretty much an old-fashioned landscape save for the inclusion of the wreck itself is "Forty-One," which, unlike the others, is hung at eye level. In this piece, Batura captures a claustrophobic--and acrophobic--view of a train that has fallen down the steep walls of a canyon.
Interestingly, with paintings like "Midwinter 1903" and "Forty-One," Batura links his work to that of other regional artists such as Chuck Forsman and Don Stinson, who put a contemporary spin on the Western landscape. This is a new connection for his work.
Batura's show runs for only one more week. It's set to close on October 1, which is also the day the Forney closes its doors in preparation for its move across town. By coinciding his show with this momentous event, Batura has done the art world a service by exposing hundreds of its denizens to the marvelous lost-in-the-past atmosphere of the Forney's current home--a quality that will most assuredly be a casualty of the move.
New paintings by Stephen Batura, through October 1 at the Forney Transportation Museum, 1416 Platte Street, 303-433-3643.