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.

Details

Through October 26
Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street
303-298-7788

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.

Two of the more unusual paintings, "The Nature of Sand" and "Depth Charge," have been hung in the space beyond the front room. Both are concerned with the seashore, and both incorporate actual beach towels, which are used as color fields and occupy the top half of each painting. In both of these, Balas captures -- as a voyeur would -- a group of young men frolicking in the surf and on the beach.

The figures are seen from a distance, but Balas nonetheless conveys their obvious sensuality and sexual power. This section of Rough Draft could be nicknamed Rough Trade; I'm sure that's what Balas had in mind when he painted them.

All of the Balas paintings are interesting from several perspectives, not least of which is the way Balas combines essentially realistic, accurately painted scenes with conceptual elements. Such mixing of concerns has always been in evidence in Balas's work, but never as clearly as in the juxtaposition of painted beach boys and actual towels.

Again, it's not hard to see why Robischon would put Balas and Sweeney together. Like Balas, Sweeney uses text as a key part of his oeuvre, and he refers to contemporary culture in his work. But that's where the similarities end.

Sweeney was born in 1952 in Southern California and now lives in Southwest Texas. But for a decade or so in the late '80s and early '90s, he pitched his tent right here in the Mile High City and played an important role in Denver's art world while he was here.

Based on his winning personality and his neo-pop conceptual style, Sweeney became a star of the alternative scene and was a key member of the Pirate co-op, where he presented several memorable solo shows. I can immediately recall his installation inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and his personal and sociological examination of the Boy Scouts of America.

Sweeney is a post-pop artist, and he's always been interested in the tension between highbrow contemporary art and lowbrow popular culture -- especially the campy stuff from the mid-twentieth century.

In many ways, the high point of the Denver phase of Sweeney's career was his public-art commission for Denver International Airport. Titled "America...Why I Love Her," the work comprises a pair of monumental maps of the United States. They are made of routed and dyed wood and dotted with framed photos of some of America's most offbeat tourist attractions.

The two maps that make up "America...Why I Love Her" are installed across from one another, just off the main-terminal lobby at DIA. From the start, they have been among the most popular pieces in the airport's mostly lackluster art collection. Ironically, by the time "America..." was completed, Sweeney was living in San Antonio. In a weird twist of fate, the opening of DIA marked the unveiling of Sweeney's first major commission even as it forced him to move. You see, Sweeney works for Continental Airlines, and when the airport opened as a hub for United, Continental pulled most of its employees out of Denver.

I really hated seeing Sweeney leave, and catching up on what he's been doing since then makes me lament his absence all the more.

In his four Rough Draft pieces, Sweeney has transcribed quotations using words and lettering from found signs. Although these works are rooted in the same concepts that informed earlier pieces such as "America...Why I Love Her," the sign compositions clearly represent a different direction.

This is evident in "True Revolutions in Art Restore More Than They Destroy," which incorporates found imagery -- such as the cartoon artist at the easel on the "Art" sign -- and found graphic design -- as in the "True" taken from a True Value hardware-store sign. The quotation is by American poet Louise Bogan, as cited by Sweeney in the piece.

In some cases, the quotations take on added meaning simply because of Sweeney's method. For example, "There Are No Images of Reality Any More" uses a quote from the grandfather of minimalism, early-twentieth-century suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich. The meaning is specific (Malevich was replacing representational imagery with geometric shapes), but Sweeney confounds the artist's intention, because nothing could be more representational -- or more abstract -- than these found words and letters.

The same kind of commentary is passively made by Sweeney regarding a quote by Thomas Eakins, an important realist from the turn of the nineteenth century, in "Art Strives for Form and Hopes for Beauty." Though this piece is hardly conventionally beautiful, the beauty it does convey derives from Sweeney's content and his chosen form.

The marvelous and thoroughly thought-provoking Rough Draft combines two artists interested in exploring intellectual and narrative content in visual ways. Balas does it with painting, while Sweeney uses assemblage. Considering the way the two artists go together, I'd say that Rough Draft is pretty smooth.

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