Popping Off

The Balas and Sweeney duet at Robischon really has something to say.

The Robischon Gallery is surely the flagship of Denver's contemporary-art venues. Oh, sure, there are a handful that are every bit as good -- but none are any better or have as long of a distinguished track record.

The gallery's physical plant, with its high ceilings and big walls, is perfect, as is its location in a rehabbed historic building in the middle of LoDo. But the formula for Robischon's success has much more to do with the high-quality exhibits routinely shown there.

For more than two decades, Robischon has maintained an impressive exhibition schedule. In the early years, when the gallery was in Capitol Hill, this was the sole responsibility of owner Jim Robischon. But for well over a decade now, Jim's wife, Jennifer Doran, has played a major part in running the place. It is typically Doran, for example, who supervises installation of the shows, and they are always expertly done.

"The Nature of Sand (#2)," by Jack Balas, oil, enamel and towel on canvas.
"The Nature of Sand (#2)," by Jack Balas, oil, enamel and towel on canvas.
"Art...Hopes for Beauty," by Gary Sweeney, discarded signs.
"Art...Hopes for Beauty," by Gary Sweeney, discarded signs.

As a result of their efforts, exhibits at Robischon often look like those you'd expect to find in museums or art centers, rather than in a commercial gallery. This fall's schedule is a case in point.

In an unusual move, there was a pause in the schedule to make room for Solace, a short-run memorial exhibit and one of a handful of shows held to commemorate the tragic events of September 11 (see Artbeat, page 64, for another). Robischon and Doran asked many of the artists they represent to create works for the first anniversary of that terrible day. Surprisingly, considering its downer content, the show was a major draw. It was even profiled on local television -- something that almost never happens to an art show.

The only drawback to Solace was that its slot was carved out of the allotted time given to Rough Draft, the gallery's real season opener. So even though we're only in the middle of October, this show is set to close in a little over a week.

Though clearly meant to be a twosome, Rough Draft is presented as a pair of solos, and there's only one place -- way up front -- where the work of Colorado artist Jack Balas is seen in direct relationship to the work of Gary Sweeney, who now lives in Texas. Although it's easy to see why the gallery put Balas and Sweeney together, it also makes sense to separate these two artistic points of view, as each artist is really doing something completely different.

The show begins with Balas, whose work is on display in the front space and in the alcove area beyond.

Born in Chicago in 1955, Balas attended Northern Illinois University, where he received both his bachelor's and master's of fine arts. He lived in California for a short time before moving to Boulder in the mid-1980s and now lives in Berthoud.

Balas's work is well-known in Denver. He made his local premiere in 1986 at Denver's long-gone Center for Idea Art. In that exhibit, a political show organized by noted New York-based art critic Lucy Lippard titled Image Wars, Balas was represented by paintings that combined recognizable subjects with written text passages. In the more than fifteen years since that auspicious debut, he has continued to create pieces along those same lines. But that's not to say that his style and approach haven't changed.

Balas is interested in a wide variety of mediums. Chiefly known as a painter, he's also an accomplished photographer. In fact, a Balas photograph depicting a nude athlete wrapped in movie film was used for the publicity campaign mounted to promote last month's Boulder Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

I bring up these photographs -- of young, good-looking guys and of the landscape, among other subjects -- because although Balas often exhibits them as is, he also uses them as preliminary sketches for details in his paintings. That's the role they play in these new pieces.

The subject of the Balas paintings at Robischon is travel, which, like the guys and the landscape, has been of lifelong interest to him. In "Saturdays (some)," an oil and enamel on canvas, the composition is dominated by a view of the Western landscape. The scene of a butte under a sky filled with clouds is almost, but not quite, traditional. It's a straightforward rendition for the most part, but Balas has added several unexpected features: The scene doesn't fill the picture plane, and a white border of gesso has been left at the top and bottom, like the edges of a photograph.

In the foreground, Balas has thrown or sprayed paint over part of his realistic scene and allowed it to run in drips toward the bottom. Finally, he has accented the clouds with text related to Saturdays during the summer; it's rendered in a typeface and in colors (red and black) that make it look like rubber stamps.

In several other paintings, Balas takes a slightly different tack, bringing out the narrative content more with pictures than with painted words. In the diptych "Rumor," the largest and most ambitious Balas piece here, a sketchy view of a canyon scene is adorned with painted versions of snapshots arrayed down the center. The resulting little squares, arranged like building blocks, provide a structural component.

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