Real World

Contemporary realism is on display at Robischon, while get-realism takes over at RMCAD.

Robischon Gallery has a pair of solos in its front rooms that look so good, they could be the first shows of the fall season -- except that it's a month early. Installed in the entry space and the one behind it is JAMES COLBERT: The Long View; hung in the large single space that runs parallel is STEPHEN BATURA: Neighborhood. The two artists are very compatible stylistically, as both do contemporary representational painting, but they come at it from entirely different perspectives.

Although Batura has star billing at Robischon, it makes sense to begin with Colbert, as his work is the first thing up when you walk through the door. Colbert was born in Washington state, but he's lived in Colorado for decades, exhibiting in the area's galleries, art centers and museums for almost thirty years. He has a BFA from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Chuck Forsman's approach influenced Colbert heavily while he was at CU, which is easy to see in these recent pieces at Robischon. Forsman and Colbert are both part of a local school of contemporary landscape painters who traffic in the juxtaposition of natural beauty with the ugliness people bring to it.

A good example of this sensibility is "I Died 1000 Times," which is the image used on the show card. (Note to Colbert: Drop the overwrought titles.) The horizontal painting is divided in half vertically by a weathered timber that is part of a ruined house stripped to its framework. In the other half is a majestic mountain range. Each half is given equal weight visually, because the small house is in the extreme foreground while the expansive landscape is in the distant background. Very different in style but with a similar narrative is "I Saw His Face in the Sky," in which Colbert paints a single '50s tract house sitting in the middle of a bucolic scene of an evergreen forest.

"I Died 1000 Times," by James Colbert, oil on canvas.
"I Died 1000 Times," by James Colbert, oil on canvas.
"only out of habit," by Stephen Batura, acrylic and 
casein on panel.
"only out of habit," by Stephen Batura, acrylic and casein on panel.

As I noted, Batura, a highly regarded Denver painter, is likewise interested in representational imagery, but his work is not coming from the same perspective as Colbert's. Instead of scenery, the Denver native focuses on society. The paintings in Batura's Neighborhood are about old Denver houses and are based on historic photos from the Charles Lillybridge archive owned by the Colorado Historical Society, with the images available online through the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library. Taking inspiration from old photos is the kind of thing Batura's been doing for the past several years, and the Lillybridge collection, which encompasses some 1,300 items, has been of special interest to him. He discovered it in the 1990s, when he worked at the Central Library, and became inspired to base paintings on found photographs.

The first of these photo-based pieces that I remember seeing, back in the late '90s, were paintings of dresses, in a Pirate show titled Vitti. I'm not sure why -- perhaps it's the colors or the way the paint is handled -- but the houses in Neighborhood reminded me of the dresses in Vitti more than Batura's better-known train-wreck pictures or "The Lowry Trios" at the Schlessman Family Branch Library, which are also illustrations of buildings.

"The Lowry Trios" -- twelve related paintings about Lowry and nearby Montclair -- is one of a number of public commissions by Batura that can be seen around town, including murals in Union Station and at the Red Rocks Visitors Center. He's currently working on "Rehearsal," a mammoth, thirty-foot-tall view of an opera scene for the soon-to-be-finished Ellie Caulkins Opera House. With more than a hundred separate figures, "Rehearsal" is not based on a single photo, but on a collage of many different images brought together to lay out the scene.

The Robischon exhibition is conceived as an installation, with the pictures hanging at different levels around the room. This type of hanging, combined with the stylistic unity of all the paintings, makes them seem like parts of the same overreaching work of art.

Batura has long used a limited palette that, while not a monochrome, might as well be. There is some of this in Neighborhood, but there's no denying that Batura is starting to introduce more complex color schemes into his paintings. A couple of them, "day by day by day" and "only out of habit," are in full -- if washed out -- color. The added hues are the product of Batura's introduction of acrylic under-painting to his tried-and-true use of casein, a milk-based paint that he makes himself.

The houses in Neighborhood are all taken from the Lillybridge archive, and most of the ones that Batura chose to paint are extremely modest and plain in detail, though there's one tumbledown mansion, "thick as thieves," done in black on purple. The all-over deep purple, not to mention the black, lends the painting an eerie quality that's a perfect fit with the Addams Family-style house that Batura has meticulously rendered.

These paintings seem so familiar to those of us in old central Denver, because that's where the houses stand. It creates an unexpectedly comforting quality.

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