Great Views

Painters at Robischon keep the landscape tradition fresh.

The Stinson portion of the exhibit continues into the next gallery. Among several interesting things is a very small diptych, "The Lyric," which is more traditionally picturesque and Southwestern than many of the other paintings here. These attributes are enhanced by the beautiful desert landscape that is the painting's subject and the tin-like frame, which recalls the Hispanic religious art of New Mexico.

"Lonestar and Pool," an oil on canvas, conveys a different feeling, even if the desert setting is similar. In it, the main pictorial element is a void -- an empty, kidney-shaped swimming pool that's part of an unseen motel. Stinson handles the pool as though it were a canyon seen from above, and the organic shape of it reinforces that effect. The "Lonestar" of the title, a weed-filled stone planter, is a much more subtle element, and it almost needs to be pointed out, because it's done in the same colors as the natural setting in which it's placed.

The other half of Salient GROUND consists of Kitchel's incredible paintings. Though her representational, nature-based style is related to Stinson's, it's also quite different, because Kitchel focuses on close-ups rather than big-picture views.

"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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Although Kitchel is well-known in the area, she's only lived in Denver for the past five years. Born in Michigan, she left the Midwest to attend graduate school at California's Claremont College, where she got her MFA. She later moved to Montana before coming to Denver in the late 1990s.

In the brief time she's been here, Kitchel has exhibited her work at some of the region's most prestigious venues, including the Arvada Center, the Center for the Visual Arts and, as noted, the DAM. During that time, she's shown only modular, multi-part paintings in which each panel had a meticulous rendering of a wild grass plant or other wild plants. The plants were rendered in vivid and iconic close-ups that seemed, whether it was true or not, oversized. The Robischon show includes some of these, from her "Parking Lot Weeds" series. In these paintings, Kitchel records the passage of the four seasons through their effects on the same weed.

The seasons have apparently been on Kitchel's mind a lot of late, as is revealed by the unbelievably ambitious and epically scaled "Train Track Walk," a 96-panel mural that slowly takes the viewer from early spring to late winter. (It must have been unbelievably time-consuming to hang these panels correctly, let alone to have painted them.) The scene is of a vacant strip of land along the railroad tracks in the Central Platte Valley, near the artist's home and studio. Although the panels are filled with trees and plants and weeds, it's impossible to tell where the setting is since no trains, or even railroad tracks, are seen; the sense of a track is only loosely evoked by the vertical panels lined up horizontally across two adjoining walls.

The panels are of various widths and appear to be randomly placed, but they're not. The specific order is repeated, with each of the four seasons made up of the same 24 shapes in the same order. (I might not have noticed this had it not been for a digital image of the piece shown to me by Robischon staffer Anna Pollock. In the image, the four seasonal sets are stacked one above the other instead of in a linear continuum as it is in the show, and it's easy to see that each panel lines up with its corollaries in the other three.) The painting cycle unfolds like a slow-motion film, with each season turning to the next in a gradual though relentless pace.

Stylistically, Kitchel's paintings are hyper-realistic and fanatically detailed. There's never any doubt about what we're looking at. Her technique is highly accomplished and refined. The pigment is homogeneously blended, resulting in an utterly smooth and flat surface. Her colors are expertly chosen naturalistic tones, and the results are visually luxurious.

It's impossible to overstate how striking and engrossing this painting is. One clear indication is that it has generated a lot of positive word of mouth for the show -- a lot. I've even heard good things from those who ordinarily support abstraction exclusively and normally hate this kind of thing.

No, those folks would be more drawn to something like Sam Scott, which is ensconced in the cozy Viewing Room gallery in the back of Robischon. But Scott, too, is concerned with the landscape.

A New Mexico modern master who's been working since the '60s, Scott has exhibited around the world. He's become familiar to Denver art audiences because his paintings have been on display at Robischon over the past fifteen years.

This show combines three of his classic paintings that have many abstract-expressionist features -- though a landscape always hides underneath the smears, drips, scribbles and runs -- with a group of watercolors from his "Une Saison" series. The many watercolors from "Une Saison" are preparatory to a French government commission of the same name that Scott received to depict the Réserve Naturelle Géologique, a national park in Haute-Provence. The watercolors are notably less abstract than the paintings. and it's easy to recognize the trees and flowers in them -- which is not the case with the paintings that seem entirely abstract.

The shows at Robischon, on for the next few weeks, ably demonstrate that of the various routes to artistic success in the current art atmosphere, at least three are based on the good old landscape.

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