Marks-A-Lot

Dale Chisman's impressive career is on display at Rule.

Many people -- if not most -- think of art and art writing as subjective enterprises. It's all a matter of taste; one person's trash is another's treasure. This thinking is partially right -- but mostly wrong. Like it or not, art is part of the objective reality that exists in the world outside our imagination.

Dale Chisman, the first-rate exhibit of paintings at Rule Gallery, is what brought these thoughts to mind. Objectively speaking, Chisman is one of the greatest artists in the history of Colorado and a key player in the contemporary scene here. That's really saying something, especially when you consider that I'm not giving my opinion, but rather basing it on the facts, such as Chisman's identifiable stylistic vision, his stick-to-itiveness, his commitment and his longstanding participation in the local exhibition world.

Chisman, who was born in Denver in 1943, attended public schools and studied with the late Martha Epp -- an influential mid-twentieth-century modernist -- while at North High School. In 1961, right out of high school, Chisman attended a summer program at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where he worked with the late Mary Chenoweth. Her influence left a lasting impression on him that is easy to see in their shared approach to composition, since both set abstract shapes against modulating color fields.

"Primal," by Dale Chisman, acrylic on canvas.
"Primal," by Dale Chisman, acrylic on canvas.
"Passage 5--Western Theory," by Dale Chisman, oil 
on linen.
"Passage 5--Western Theory," by Dale Chisman, oil on linen.

Details

Through January 14, Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473

Chisman moved to Boulder in 1963 to attend the University of Colorado, and during his undergraduate years he briefly studied at Yale. He graduated from CU in 1965 with a BFA; the following year he moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, which he's told me he hated. His initial connection to London was David Hockney, whom he had met when the British legend was a visiting artist in Boulder.

Chisman returned to Boulder in 1967 and entered graduate school, earning an MFA in 1969. During this, his second sojourn there, Chisman became part of what could be called the post-mid-century-modernist group. A bunch of young artists had gathered in Boulder in the late '60s, making the town an art center for the first time in its history. These artists, many of whom still live in the area, are now themselves in their sixties. They include geometric abstractionist Clark Richert, hyperrealist sculptor John DeAndrea and neo-expressionist ceramics artist Martha Daniels. Most of them were students at the University of Colorado and studied with painter, photographer and art theorist George Woodman, the great unsung art hero of that period.

I've never seen Chisman's paintings from his student days, but he's described them to me as examples of figural abstraction, using the recognizable human form as his taking-off point.

Chisman left Colorado again, this time moving to New York, the capital of the art market. You know, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. After just a few years in New York -- Chisman sets the date at 1974 -- he abandoned all references to recognizable subjects in his paintings and began doing work that was steeped in the traditions of abstract expressionism. Interestingly, this move was tantamount to swimming up the cultural stream. At the time, figural and representational work was making a comeback, while abstraction, except for minimalism, was on the wane.

It is at this point in Chisman's career that the show at Rule picks up. The group of five paintings that were done in the 1970s were created after his residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, an experience he sees as very important in his development as an artist. The paintings, hung in the front section of the gallery, exude an icy elegance that perfectly approximates the weather right now.

These paintings are closely interconnected and feature a cruciform of lines dividing each composition into a grid of four squares. "The quadrants were a compositional device that I used to flatten out the surface," Chisman says. "Previously, I had been dealing with deeper space, and I wanted these to be shallow." The two lines intersecting at the center bring viewers' eyes right up to the surface of the paintings.

There's something going on in each of the four squares of each painting, but more so in some than in others. Several -- such as "Primal," from 1978 -- incorporate triangles or squares or both. "I was trying to devise icons, a visual vocabulary. It seems so simple to me now," Chisman says with a laugh.

Another element in some works is Chisman's own handprint. "It's about identity, 'I was here,' and it was a way of retaining the figure without painting it," he explains. In addition to the geometric shapes and handprints, Chisman also puts scribbling and actual writing on his pieces.

These five paintings are also interlinked by their shared gray palette. "At the time, I was not so concerned with strong colors, and when I saw it hung for the first time, it seemed very soft to me, gray-ed. I think it was the influence of the light in New York," Chisman says.

With paintings of this sort, Chisman found ready success in New York and was represented for years by the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery. His work was widely exhibited, and his paintings were even included in an important exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

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