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.

Details

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

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.

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.

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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