The Vision Thing

Landscape paintings and photos are at Robischon, while art and architecture make the news.

The landscape and the natural environment have long preoccupied artists. In a contemporary context, though, artists can't simply record the scenery; they need to comment on it, transform it. Robischon Gallery is currently presenting a pair of solos featuring two Boulder artists whose reputations go way beyond the metro area and who are doing fresh takes on nature-based art. In the front space is Chuck Forsman's Common Ground, which comprises contemporary representational paintings, mostly of landscapes. In the center space is James Balog's Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, in which the artist's recent composite photos of trees get their Denver debut.

Forsman is a professor of art at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a gig he's held since 1971, when he first moved to our state with a freshly minted MFA from the University of California at Davis, then a hotbed of contemporary art. Over the decades, he's done paintings of the figure, but he's best known for his pithy, political landscapes showing Western scenery ravaged by roads, dams and other evidence of civilization.

Some of the paintings in Common Ground are of this sort, but others take up scenes in Vietnam. These oil-on-Masonite works don't refer specifically to the Vietnam War -- there are no scenes of destruction, for example -- but they are meant to generally bring up the topic. That's easiest to see in the one non-landscape in the show, "Vietnamerican," a split portrait in which one half of a young man's face is depicted as if he were a Vietnamese peasant, the other as if he were an American street kid. It's pretty weird.

"Honeymoon," by Chuck Forsman, oil on Masonite.
"Honeymoon," by Chuck Forsman, oil on Masonite.
"Angel Oak," by James Balog, chromogenic print.
"Angel Oak," by James Balog, chromogenic print.


Through April 9, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

More typical of Forsman is another of the Vietnam pieces, "Honeymoon," a two-panel painting with a quarry on one side and the ominous afternoon sky on the other. It's done very much in Forsman's traditional style, in which a painterly approach is used to render realistic scenes. Across from "Honeymoon" are two slightly older paintings hanging side by side, "Beast" and "American Standard." In "Beast," a buffalo is shown in the bottom left of the foreground, with scarred and terraced mountains receding into the background. The composition of "American Standard" is similar, with a coiffed French poodle depicted in a desert landscape.

Balog went around the country -- and to a great deal of trouble -- to create the remarkable images in Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest. The artist, who earned his MFA in Boulder and has been there ever since, has made a name for himself by merging wildlife photography with contemporary art. His work has appeared in books, catalogues and exhibitions across the country.

The Robischon show is made up of photos of some of the largest trees in the world, which Balog has taken over the last five years. The series of tree photos have been published in the book Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, from which the show takes its title. Balog has developed an elaborate, Fear Factor-worthy method to create his images: He takes straight-on shots of the tree from the top to the bottom while sitting in a contraption hung from another enormous tree nearby. Readers will not be surprised to learn that Balog is a daredevil mountain climber and uses the gear specially made for that sport to help in his photography. Using pulleys, he gradually lowers himself, stopping every few feet to take dozens of shots with a digital camera.

Back in his Boulder studio, Balog puts the images together like a jigsaw puzzle -- or a David Hockney-style photo-montage -- to form the full portrait of the individual trees. Because multiple shots are brought together, a horizontal striping is created by the repeated glimpses of the horizon and the other trees to the sides of the star tree. All of our favorite botanical mammoths are here, including a giant sequoia, called "Stagg," a western red cedar, the Nolan Creek cedar, and a live oak, named "Angel Oak."

Balog is an environmentalist, and he wants viewers to understand the value of these trees, so he's given each photo a descriptive caption, detailing, where necessary, the ravages suffered by a particular species of tree or the American forest in general.

It was savvy of Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran to put Forsman's paintings together with Balog's photos, as both artists use their aesthetic talents to make credibly contemporary works that also raise issues about the environment.

It was the political landscape and not the actual one that was exposed in the exhibit Conversations in Clay, which closed last weekend at the Lakewood Cultural Center. The show brought together three ceramic sculptors -- Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, Caroline Douglas and Gayla Lemke -- but what made it stand out was the Lakewood City government's removal of an element from Lemke's "Hope Stones" installation (Artbeat, March 3). City Manager Mike Rock -- it's delicious that a guy named Rock pulled the stone -- ordered the offending piece removed at the behest of three Lakewood City Council members: Tom Booher, Jackie Herbst and Ray Elliot.

The piece in question is made up of ceramic stones with quotations impressed into them. The quotes come from a variety of historic and contemporary figures; the one that was censored was attributed to political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, who has a weekly show on HBO -- which, to my knowledge, is still available in Lakewood.

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