Art and Nature

"Rocks and Pines, Boulder, Colorado," by Birger Sandzn, oil on board.

The Colorado Rockies -- the mountains, not the baseball team -- have attracted painters for more than a hundred years. But it's the period between 1900 and 1950, without question, that is the most significant for Colorado landscape painting, with scores of accomplished artists working here at that time. It's no surprise, then, that this golden age is the focus of Colorado on Canvas, a gorgeous show at LoDo's David Cook Fine Art.

The three-part exhibit was such a huge success that it has been extended through the end of August. Many of the sold items have been removed, replaced with objects from Cook's remarkable back-room stock. So even if you've seen the show, you may not have gotten to see a lot of things that are in it now.

To look at local painting from this time is to acknowledge the primary role of the Broadmoor Academy, a nationally renowned art school that later became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, though the art-school portion was closed in the early 1950s.

During its heyday, the Broadmoor attracted important artists as teachers, and it turned out students who became important artists. The stunning Cook show is packed with relevant examples, although Colorado on Canvas is not exclusively made up of works associated with the long-defunct art school.

But its domination is apparent right from the start, in the form of "In the Heart of the Rockies," a small gem of an oil painting from 1925 by Birger Sandzén. The exquisite painting, which faces viewers as they enter, is signature Sandzén; the forms have been conventionalized to recast the scene as an abstraction. The paint was heavily applied, using lots of visual brush strokes in remarkably bold colors. As tiny as it is, "In the Heart of the Rockies" has enormous power.

Equally powerful is another Sandzén in the show, "Rocks and Pines, Boulder, Colorado" an oil on board from 1941. This larger, easel-sized painting is a flat abstraction based on trees, mountains and clouds -- and it's fabulous.

Sandzén lived in Kansas, but he visited Colorado regularly, teaching at the Broadmoor Academy from time to time. Like other artists from the Midwest and East, he came to Colorado for the sights, and in the process of depicting them, the work changed. "Sandzén's Colorado paintings are more desirable than his Kansas ones, even in Kansas," says Cook director Norm Anderson. Considering the ready appeal of the mountain vistas versus the more majesty-challenged views of the plains, it does make a lot of sense.

Another out-of-state artist represented in Colorado on Canvas is Robert Reid from Massachusetts, who was instrumental in the founding of the Broadmoor Academy. Reid's 1910 "Western Landscape," hanging on the south wall, is an impressionist oil of a stream meandering through a high-country valley. It's very painterly, and the thickly done and expressionistically laid pigments are so bright that they seem to pop off the surface.

Just down from the Reid is another Broadmoor landscape, "Gray Barriers," by John Carlson, who lived in New York. Carlson's 1920 oil on canvas is moody, atmospheric and absolutely gorgeous.

Though artists with a connection to Colorado Springs make up the biggest part of the show, there are also Denver painters featured, in particular John Edward Thompson. Several of his early pieces are included, but the clear standout is the monumental "Mt. Sopris, Colorado, Sunset in June," an oil done around 1900. The subject itself forced Thompson to paint the top half a bright pink and blue and the bottom half in dark greens and browns -- and the result is hypnotic. "Mt. Sopris" hangs on the wall at the landing of the central staircase that leads down to two more galleries.

The works downstairs are more recent, falling into either the regionalist or early modernist camp. In the first gallery at the bottom of the stairs are paintings and watercolors by Charles Bunnell, a Broadmoor Academy-associated modernist who died more than thirty years ago but whose reputation has been on the upswing during the last five.

The show ends with a gallery full of lithographs, etchings and photogravures, which are again dominated by the Fine Arts Center crowd. Taking center stage are pieces by Lawrence Barrett, Peppino Mangravite and Adolf Dehn, though George Elbert Burr's photographic prints uphold Denver's honor, at least to some extent.

Colorado on Canvas surveys the history of art in the state and illustrates it with choice examples. Many artists came from elsewhere, but in dealing with our scenery -- and perhaps in dealing with each other -- they created styles unique to this region. It's as though the very atmosphere of the state made the artists create Colorado-style pieces. The same effect is seen with resident artists, only there's a double dose of it.  

Even more so than Colorado, New Mexico has attracted artists from everywhere, especially to the towns of Santa Fe and Taos. And just like in Colorado, there's a distinctive set of styles associated exclusively with New Mexico. One of those styles is transcendentalism, which captivated many early modernists and has had a revival of sorts during the last decade or so. I bring this up because there's a choice group of new neo-transcendentalist paintings by young New Mexico artist Warren Kelly in Homestead. The elegant show is being presented in Pirate's back room, which has got to be one of the last places in town you'd expect to find such a sumptuous offering.

Kelly was born and raised in New Mexico, but the thirty-something artist has been away for the last ten years doing a lot of traveling, living in Maine, New York and, for a couple of years, right here in Denver. He's back in Taos now, and he's seeing it with fresh eyes. "All these artists came to Taos -- John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove -- and though they had done work before they came, Taos changed their art," he says. "I'm from there, but I've been away, and now that I've gone back, it's changed my art, too."

The paintings include a group of highly abstracted landscapes based on the small towns of the area, such as "Talpa, winter I," in which swirling curvilinear lines and arching shapes stand in for the details. The piece is part of a group of thirteen small studies that are installed in the niche space under the loft. "They're stylistic studies for the paintings I'm doing for my show this fall at Cordell Taylor," Kelly says, "but they're not studies of the actual paintings themselves."

In the narrow full-height space, Kelly has hung three paintings that are very different from the landscape studies, but are clearly an outgrowth of them. In these paintings, one of which is unfinished, Kelly adds the figure to the landscape by using the Matachines procession of the Taos Pueblo Indians on Christmas Eve. The Matachines blend Roman Catholic and Indian beliefs -- not unlike how New Mexico does, itself. All three of these figural abstractions are interesting, but "Matachines 1," is showstopping.

Despite its obvious charms, attendance for Homestead has been very light because it opened the day after Independence Day, and because Kelly is only starting to get known around here. That's too bad, because the show's really worth seeing before it closes this Sunday.

Continuing the discussion of the Western landscape, let's turn from the sublime world of the fine arts to the sordid world of politics, switching from landscape paintings to landscape design.

Any way you look at them, Denver's parks are among the city's most valuable assets. The earliest date back over a century, and the newest opened this year; collectively they represent a history of American park design with major examples such as City Park, the Civic Center and Cheesman Park. Not to forget the fabulous parkways, including Sixth, Seventh and 17th avenues.

But have you noticed? They all look like hell.

Surely, big contributors to this unkempt appearance have been the recent weather disasters (the drought of 2002, the blizzards of 2003), which have wrought terrible damage on the trees everywhere, especially in the parks. And there's the rub. In a park system that comprises the city's ultimate botanical treasure trove -- one that's lousy with fifty-year old specimens -- a draconian water-conservation program has been implemented that's resulted in drought stress so severe as to be visible from a moving car.

It's a disgrace -- and James Mejia, the Webb-appointed director of the parks and recreation department, is completely to blame. Clearly, Mejia's watering equation did not take into account the objective needs of the plants. Though why would he consider the flora? He doesn't know anything about the topic, having had no previous experience in the field when he was tapped for the job in 2001.

It was also Mejia who turned off the city's fountains, another part of his drought-mongering, even though they use recycled water. Not only that, but after being left idle for two seasons they will all need to be overhauled, and, of course, there's no money to do that.

Thank goodness Mejia's tenure will come to a close with Webb's. But now the problem is in mayor-elect John Hickenlooper's lap. He needs to appoint a parks director who knows what to do and can take immediate emergency measures to save the trees. Then those fountains need to be gotten up and running again.  

Oh, I almost forgot. Mejia's greatest negative achievement is overseeing the destruction of Skyline Park. Wow. All that harm to the park system and he only held his post for a little over two years. It just goes to show you, one person really can make a difference.

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