Robin Schaefer, at Ironton Studios & Gallery (3636 Chestnut Place, 303-297-8626), is an intriguing show spotlighting a group of crisply rendered portraits. Schaefer, who maintains a studio at Ironton, has taken grade-school photos and translated them into oils on canvas. The resulting paintings, which are done in muted colors verging on monochromes, convey the spirit of the original photos (especially the flatness), although they are clearly handmade.
The idea of using mundane studio photos as a source for paintings is reminiscent of Matt O'Neill's surrealist yearbook pieces in grisailles, a couple of which are in the Denver Art Museum's collection. The relationship between the two artists' work is more than coincidental: Schaefer assists O'Neill in his decorative and mural-painting business.
But Schaefer's paintings are distinct from O'Neill's. She does not depict anonymous figures, as he does, but captures the likenesses of her closest family members, including her parents and her brother, who is seen in the untitled and extremely unflattering oil on canvas above.
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Schaefer decided not to do a portrait of her childhood art teacher, instead inviting him to take a guest turn at Ironton alongside her. For the self-titled John Cunningham, he cordoned off a part of the gallery with black fabric, visually and physically separating his subtle pinhole photos from Schaefer's much more flamboyant paintings.
Cunningham's photos were done over the past two years in Denver and in Provincetown, Massachusetts; they are mostly landscapes, though he does include a pair of self-portraits.
One of Cunningham's most obvious strengths is his fine sense of pictorial composition. These small, square photos look like chic antiques, an effect achieved both by the dark tones of the finishing as well as by his seemingly archaic subjects. In choosing a scene, he scrupulously avoided including anything that would root them in our own time, focusing mainly on trees, rivers and buildings that could date back a century or more.
The two very different shows at Ironton, Robin Schaefer and John Cunningham, run through March 31.