Great Views

Painters at Robischon keep the landscape tradition fresh.

Representational art has been around for, oh, I don't know, twelve or fifteen thousand years or so, and has always had a strong appeal. So in spite of the relatively recent developments in the arts -- such as the invention of photography a century and a half ago or the rise of abstraction fifty years later, both of which were supposed to eliminate the need for painted or sculpted representations of recognizable subjects -- artists have continued to make representational pieces, and art audiences, collectors among them, continue to be interested in this kind of art.

There are two basic camps of representational artists right now. First are those who behave as if photography and abstraction had never come along, re-creating what was cutting-edge in the nineteenth century. This group, which includes many commercially successful artists, is completely irrelevant to contemporary art.

The other group, the relevant one, is marked by pieces that are at once clearly representational and thoroughly contemporary. Far from ignoring things like photography and abstraction -- or even conceptual art -- these contemporary representational artists respond to, and sometimes borrow from, these disparate sources.

"Lonestar and Pool," by Don Stinson, oil on panel.
"Lonestar and Pool," by Don Stinson, oil on panel.
Detail of "Train Track Walk," by Karen Kitchel, oil on board.
Detail of "Train Track Walk," by Karen Kitchel, oil on board.

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Through June 1, 303-298-7788
Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street

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The Robischon Gallery is promoting just such an approach in Salient GROUND, an impressive duet joining a pair of important, nationally exhibited Colorado painters, Don Stinson and Karen Kitchel. (As it happens, both Stinson and Kitchel also have works on display right now on the seventh floor of the Denver Art Museum.) The work of these two artists is complementary, so putting them together was an inspired choice on the part of the gallery. Nevertheless, each has a distinct style and takes a different spin on the stodgy old landscape tradition.

The exhibit begins with two rooms of Stinson's signature landscapes, which are all set in the American West. Stinson, who is from Denver, earned his bachelor of fine arts in 1980 at Colorado State University, but he also studied in Alberta, Canada, and in Boston, where he received a masters of fine arts in 1982 jointly from Tufts University and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He returned to his home town in 1990, where he's built a reputation as a first-rate artist. His work is in many important private and public collections around the country, including the DAM's, of course.

In a sense, Stinson is part of a broad movement in the visual arts that's found a lot of adherents, especially in the Rocky Mountain states. Artists associated with this movement use the landscape as a way to express narrative content that often has a political, or at least quasi-political, bent. Stylistically, these landscapes are most often represented in a straightforward rather than symbolic manner, but the chosen subject matter -- essentially, the way humanity spoils nature -- puts a definite edge on the paintings. What separates this style from other types of narrative painting is that it puts a twist on the idealized landscapes that have dominated painting for millennia.

It's all the more interesting to note, then, that Stinson puts a twist on the twist by re-introducing the romantic ideal into the picture. For him, the tacky ruins of modern civilization -- abandoned gas stations, drive-ins and motels -- are transformed into heroic landmarks, the obvious equal in nobility to the majestic vistas that surround them. He conveys the haunting sites not with an environmentalist's sneer, as painter Chuck Forsman does, but with what can only be described as more than a small measure of affection for the bankrupt and collapsing follies he captures. The very fact that the structures are falling down, in fact, adds yet another component: the idea that nature will triumph after all.

One of the first paintings at Robischon, "A Solid Foundation," an oil on panel, is exaggeratedly horizontal -- Stinson's typical choice, which is appropriate, considering that he's always looking at the horizon. It is dominated by the sky, which is an unbelievably deep blue, with white and gray clouds receding into the distance; below are scrub-covered bluffs. In the foreground, just to the right of center, is a once grand (though now broken) lighted marquee sign for a drive-in built on an oversized stone foundation. On the other side is the asphalt highway.

Stinson uses several devices to guide the viewer's eyes across the painting from left to right, including the diagonal highway and the direction of the windblown clouds.

An interesting feature of Stinson's paintings is the way he achieves an almost photographic sense of reality with the use of a fairly painterly style. From a short distance, the details are crisp and clear, but up close, the marks of the brush and the daubs of pigment are visible.

Hung adjacent to "A Solid Foundation" is "Green River," another oil on panel, in which a group of freestanding signs are clustered in front of a dramatic butte. Here the viewer's eyes are guided in the opposite direction, from right to left. It was clever of gallery director Jennifer Doran to arrange these two paintings so that each has an opposing orientation, which moves them out from the corner of the room.

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