George Carlson: Heart of the West

Denver Art Museum

The blockbuster Inspiring Impressionism (see review), at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org), posits the idea that the widely admired style both signaled a clear break with the past and, strangely enough, represented a straightforward continuation of Old Master traditions.

Another show at the DAM, George Carlson: Heart of the West, also deals with impressionism, but in this case, the century-old style is used as the principal source of inspiration for an accomplished neo-traditional artist. The exhibit was put together by curator Ann Daley, who has shaped and defined the Western collection at the DAM.

Long overlooked because it was viewed as an embarrassment by past generations of museum leaders, the DAM's collection of Western art is uneven, and the soaring market for the style now means that the situation isn't likely to change soon. Daley's great gift has been her skill at hiding the shortcomings by showcasing the strongest pieces and focusing on contemporary art by Western artists such as Carlson.

The Carlson exhibit includes nearly three dozen drawings and sculptures, mostly pastels and bronzes, along with a single painting. Though he doesn't consider himself to be a Western artist — his latest efforts are about ballet dancers — Carlson has typically turned to Western subject matter. He specializes in heroic depictions of American Indians and of horses, and Daley has made these the main course of Heart of the West.

Carlson's horses are finely made and undeniably beautiful, but what chiefly attracted Daley is the way the artist has conferred individual personalities on them. The horses are somewhat abstracted as seen in "Mane of Wind, Neck of Thunder" (pictured), in which the animal's form emerges from a pile of amorphous shapes.

I'm of two minds when it comes to Western art, especially the neo-traditional type that Carlson does. On the one hand, it's a genuine part of our heritage; on the other, it's way too conservative. Having said this, I need to add that Carlson is clearly a consummate artist whose skills are undeniable. The show closes April 13.

 
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