Real and Magical

Contemporary Western imagery at Robischon, and a fantasyland at Sandy Carson.

For its current exhibition, Robischon Gallery stitched together three solos and a duet to make something that looks a museum theme show. The shared subject is the Western landscape as translated by contemporary painters and photographers living and working in Colorado.

The first up is Don Stinson: Shared Sky/Natural Forces, which showcases a batch of the well-known artist's newest paintings. Stinson takes a traditional approach to painting, but he adds a contemporary twist through the subject matter, which typically involves non-picturesque views of civilization's insensitive encroachment on the natural environment. Stinson takes a pro-environmental position in these oil-on-linen pieces, equating the damage of satellite dishes in Texas, as seen in "The Air Above Marfa," with a bonfire at the Burning Man festival, depicted in the majestic "Desert Burn." In both, the influence of humanity -- whether the counterculture kids in the desert or the corporate bigwigs on the prairie -- has the same result: damage to the earth. Each also references the art world: While Burning Man purports to be about art, and people who call themselves artists are involved, Marfa has become an important regional center for real art by real artists.

In the large front space adjacent to the Stinson show is a collection of ethereal photos that make up Kevin O¹Connell. Unlike most artists interested in the Western landscape, O'Connell doesn't look to the mountains. Instead, he turns to the plains and the clouds for his exquisitely executed prints, done in either platinum or silver. On the long wall are twenty views of the horizon taken from a great distance. At first glance, these images look like minimalist abstracts, because O'Connell's technique creates a dark bar at the bottom and a light gray field that fills up the rest of the composition.

"The Air Above Marfa," by Don Stinson, oil on linen.
"The Air Above Marfa," by Don Stinson, oil on linen.
"Midnight Arrival," by Frank Sampson, acrylic on 
"Midnight Arrival," by Frank Sampson, acrylic on canvas.


Don Stinson, Kevin OíConnell and David Sharpe
Through April 8, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

Frank Sampson
Through March 31, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

On the other side of the room are three large photos from O'Connell's "Lightning" series; adjacent to them are three from the "False Aurora" series. For the lightning group, the prominent Colorado photographer shot trees illuminated only by nearby lightning flashes -- though he doesn't actually show the streak itself. The "False Aurora" photos capture the clouds at night as they are illuminated by the glow of Denver's ambient light. Like the plains photos, these series have a minimalist quality. The "Lightning" photos are predominantly black on black, while the "False Aurora" ones are done in an all-over misty gray.

In the gallery next to Robischon's office is David Sharpe: Lost Altars. Sharpe specializes in enlargements of pinhole originals. He processes the pinholes out in the field -- he's outfitted his truck as an ad-hoc photo lab -- and then uses homemade enlargers back at home to transfer the images onto oversized sheets of photosensitive paper. For this latest group, he recorded would-be landmarks in the countryside, including an abandoned aviary, a collapsing barn and a mangy Charlie Brown tree. Part of the appeal of Sharpe's very appealing photos is the way he conveys the atmosphere, making the subjects look like apparitions.

In the Viewing Room, the gallery put together a spur-of-the-moment pairing of quirky documentary photos by Eric Paddock and heroic landscapes by Chuck Forsman. Paddock has an eye for the eccentricities of small-town life, while Forsman combines his memories of Viet Nam with the familiar sights of the Rockies.

These separate features at Robischon are great individually, but seen as a single effort they're even better, transcending the inevitable idiosyncrasies of each to form a single coherent statement. Here's a warning, though: The marvelous diversions close in just over a week.

Another contemporary artist interested in representational imagery is featured in Frank Sampson, at Sandy Carson Gallery. Unlike the artists at Robischon, however, Sampson revels not in the great outdoors, but in his own innermost thoughts. Looking at a Sampson painting, viewers are confronted with any number of recognizable things -- landscapes, animals, people -- assembled to portray improbable situations. The meanings of these paintings are completely opaque, though it is apparent that there are underlying stories -- at least for Sampson.

At 78, the Boulder-based artist has a distinguished career of more than fifty years under his belt, making him a bona fide local treasure. Born in South Dakota and educated at the University of Iowa, where he studied with legendary printmaker Mauricio Lasansky, Sampson joined the art faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1961. The late '50s and early '60s marked the first time that Boulder had an art scene of any consequence, and Sampson joined such luminaries as George and Betty Woodman and the late Gene Matthews, among many others. Sampson, now a professor emeritus, taught thousands of students at CU until his retirement in 1990.

Thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, Sampson studied in Belgium before coming to CU, and that perhaps explains why his work of the '60s was so completely out of step with prevailing American styles, including abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism. Instead, Sampson explored styles that dated to the pre-World War II period -- notably, surrealism and magic realism -- and updated them in his own, idiosyncratic way. Oddly enough, his then-eccentric and backward-looking tastes came back in vogue in the 1980s, giving his work a new audience.

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