Panoramic Views

For its holiday offering, LoDo's Robischon Gallery has teamed up a pair of disparate shows that together give viewers some sense of the pluralism reigning at the end of this century.

In the series of rooms that make up the gallery's main space, including what is from time to time called the Artforms space, the group show Proverbs explores contemporary photography and contains an in-depth presentation of the recent work of Ruth Thorne-Thomsen.

Thorne-Thomsen, who now lives in Philadelphia, spent most of the 1980s in Denver. From 1983 to 1989 she served on the University of Colorado's art faculty at the Auraria campus, and it would hardly be an understatement to say that during those years, she played a significant role in the development of local photography. Thorne-Thomsen was on the cutting edge of a number of sweeping revivals that changed the face of fine-art photography in the Eighties. Looking to early photography, she found approaches that had been abandoned over the years and breathed new life into them. She advocated the use of primitive cameras, she made narrative pictures and she took staged, as opposed to candid, photographs. Today these are ubiquitous features of vanguard photography, but that wasn't the case when Thorne-Thomsen was embracing them. Her enduring legacy is obvious even a decade after she left town, since many of this city's most interesting contemporary photographers are still directly or indirectly influenced by her work or by that of her many distinguished former students, in particular the late Wes Kennedy.

At Robischon, Thorne-Thomsen is represented by more than a dozen signature photographs that combine stilted and nearly surrealist landscape backdrops with classical statuary in lieu of figures. Given that the statues depict Greek and Roman gods, they seem absurd in the outdoor settings Thorne-Thomsen has provided them. Also, by combining the classical images with images such as a chair or barbed wire, Thorne-Thomsen literally changes the meaning of the statues' existing poses. Though she goes to great pains to convey three-dimensionality in these photographs, especially through the use of deep shadows, the illusion of depth is unconvincing--and surely that's her intention. Though the view is nominally expansive, with the horizons visible across the middle of the photos, the shallow field of each picture lends an eerie feel to the superficially idealized scenes.

Most of Thorne-Thomsen's pieces in Proverbs are standard contact prints, but there are also two monumental black-and-white photo enlargements. Gallery co-director Jennifer Doran, who arranged the show, has given each of these limited-edition silver-toned prints its own wall, and both can be seen from the street through Robischon's large display windows. As viewers enter the gallery, they're faced with "Though the Cage May Be Made of Gold, It Is Still a Cage," in which Thorne-Thomsen places a found image of a statue of Venus on an indefinite ground and sets the statue against a cloud-filled sky. Wrapped in a conical spiral around the Venus is a coil of barbed wire. To the left of "Though the Cage" is the enlargement "There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, but Thinking Makes It So," which follows the same enigmatic program, combining a found image of a statue with constructed ground and sky. "There Is Nothing" depicts a striding male torso "walking" across the bare landscape below some ominous dark clouds. The torso is a ruin that has lost its arms and head, but Thorne-Thomsen has "restored" it by placing a tangle of twigs standing in for the statue's missing head.

Thorne-Thomsen isn't the only photographer in Proverbs who's interested in neo-classicism. In the gallery immediately behind the front rooms is a series of large, rich and murky black-and-white silver-print photos of manicured landscapes by Lynn Geesaman. These are officially untitled, but each is distinguished by its subject's particular location.

Geesaman, who lives in Minneapolis, has taken photographs of European and American gardens. She's not interested in the backyard variety but rather in world-class gardens such as the Parc de Sceaux in France, the subject of two of her photographs here. Geesaman has also photographed Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens, capturing a conically trimmed evergreen set on a meticulously clipped lawn surrounded by flowering trees. The theatricality she's able to orchestrate out of these fixed and still landscape elements is astounding, and the fine selection of Geesaman photos is perhaps the strongest part of the Proverbs exhibit.

Not that there aren't other worthwhile attractions, including four sepia-toned panoramic photographs by artist-collaborators Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, who did these works on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The four photos are actually not made up of single shots; each has been made using many sequential images lined up to form a unified view. They are, according to the artists, fictional photographic documents of a re-created "historical" event, the gliding experiments of one Peter Hesselbach supposedly carried out in 1936. Though Kahn and Selesnick claim otherwise in their written statement (asserting that the Hesselbach series was inspired by the contents of a scrapbook on the subject found in a backwater history museum in Massachusetts), the experiment itself, like the re-creations, is surely a work of pure fiction.

The exaggeratedly horizontal shape of these photographic assemblages was necessitated by the panoramic view Kahn and Selesnick capture in their photos. The panoramic field allows the artists to reveal vast expanses of landscape populated by scores of figures receding into the distance--though given the sequential method, there may have been only a couple of models striking the many various poses in the many different frames. The all-male cast of the Hesselbach experiment team (who come, according to the artists, from Britain's Royal Engineering Corps) are posed at their labors. Many of the hale and hearty young men are photographed stripped to the waist, and there's more than a faint homoeroticism to the pieces.

In the adjacent Artforms space, Proverbs organizer Doran has assembled some of the show's most adventurous pieces, notably two photographic installations by Garth Amundson and a trio of Terry Maker's large black-and-white photographs that date from a few years ago.

Amundson, who lives in Ohio, begins his photographic installations by making small three-dimensional objects out of wire. He then stretches fabric printed with photographic transfers over the wire armatures and secures the fabric to the wire with sutures. The resulting organic forms are hung in masses on the wall. The synthetic fabric Amundson uses has a slight green tint to it--which is the only evidence in the full glare of the gallery's track lights that these two pieces are coated with phosphorescent paint and thus glow in the dark.

Maker is a highly regarded Colorado artist, known not just as a photographer but also as a sculptor, a fact revealed by three Proverbs photos that relate closely to her three-dimensional work. Though recently Maker's medium of choice has been mud, she has also created a body of work using found books. In the toned photograph "Upwardly Mobile," a dictionary is opened, its pages vandalized by a diagonal of black blotches. In "Tower of Babel," hung next to "Upwardly Mobile," open books have been arranged architectonically in a spiral. Their printed pages have also been marked with black blobs obscuring the text. The narrative content of these Maker photographs is unclear, but it's this ambiguity that furnishes them with their pleasing monumentality.

After the mostly black-and-white world of the Proverbs exhibit, the gem tones of the brightly colored landscapes in A Covenant of Seasons are a welcome relief. This fine exhibit, in the recently created Viewing Room gallery, features monotypes by well-known Colorado artist Joellyn Duesberry.

Duesberry's monotypes, some pulled at Denver's Open Press and the rest done in Santa Fe at Hand Graphics, are from a group that the artist created for a book, also called A Covenant of Seasons, in which her work is paired with poems by Colorado poet Pattiann Rogers. Interestingly, and unexpectedly, both the artist and the poet are each given their own space in the book. Unlike in most books of this type, not only are Duesberry's monotypes and Rogers's poems never brought together on the same page, but they never even appear across from one another on adjacent pages. The beautifully illustrated book (which is available at Robischon) includes a carefully researched essay by David Park Curry, formerly the curator of American art at the Denver Art Museum, who places Duesberry's lyrical landscapes in art-historical context.

Like her mentor, Bay Area master Richard Diebenkorn, Duesberry creates compositions that are at once abstract and representational. Also like Diebenkorn, Duesberry is a master colorist, assembling complicated palettes that are dense and gorgeous.

In "Chama Riverbank, Winter, III," purple water meanders under a canopy of orange leaves beneath the cream and blue of the sky. The scene, essentially made up of gestural scribbles, is defined by the pair of expressively painted trees that frame the foreground. Next to "Chama Riverbank" is an even more abstracted view of the landscape, "Ranchyard, Ca., IV," in which a jumble of forms crowd in front of a backdrop of foothills. The palette in "Ranchyard" is dominated by soft grays, greens and browns.

All of the Duesberry monotypes at Robischon are finely done, but surely the star of this group is the large triptych "Arboretum," which has been propped up against the wall. The three vertical panels, on cloth stretched like a canvas over wooden bars, take three different views and do not line up into a single scenic image. And though trees and hills are discernible, "Arboretum" is, at the same time, nearly non-objective and looks like--but isn't--an abstract-expressionist composition.

Between them, Proverbs and A Covenant of Seasons present a wide array of contemporary approaches to the visual arts. It's this broad vision that has long attracted viewers to Robischon.

Proverbs and A Covenant of Seasons, through December 31 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788.

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