For 150 years, artists from around the world have come to Colorado to record its majestic mountains in paintings, prints and photos. And while the Rockies are certainly the most dramatic element of our landscape, some artists have instead focused on other, less expected views of Colorado. This includes those who find their aesthetic calling in capturing the plains, which are overshadowed aesthetically — and physically — by the mountains. There are also artists who convey scenes of nature that have been ravaged by development, and some who portray views of cities and highways. This is the context for four solos on view right now, three at Robischon and one at William Havu.
The first is Chuck Forsman: Interstate Alms, at Robischon, devoted to paintings done over the past few years by this Colorado legend. Beginning in the early '70s, Forsman, who was living and working in Boulder, where he taught at the University of Colorado, became widely known for his conceptual realist paintings that recorded the intrusion of civilization into the once pristine wilderness. These works had a decidedly political edge that could be easily associated with the environmental movement that had taken hold at that time. In this way, it's easy to connect Forsman's work ideologically with the contemporaneous photos done by his friend Robert Adams, whose images are on display at the Denver Art Museum right now.
Forsman's recent work at Robischon is both the same as and different from these early pieces. The environmental content is still there, but many of the pictures are set in Vietnam. Sometimes Forsman calls up both countries in the same painting, as in "Ends of the Earth," part of the "Vietnamerican" series he's been working on for the past ten years. Although the topography of the two places is very different, Forsman has managed to blend them into a singular vision in these works, introducing the issue of ambiguity. One thing that is unambiguous, however, is that the environment is under assault by humans.
Stylistically, Forsman's paintings are simultaneously very realistic and fairly mannered, even stilted. It's almost as though he crossed hyper-realism and magic realism. This kind of thing is seen clearly in "Leap," in which an accurate depiction of a skateboarder in the foreground gives way to a flat and stylized rendition of a mountain scene in the background. Or in "Honeymoon," in which an animal in apparent distress is shown lying before a scene of a mountain being taken down.
In the next set of spaces at Robischon is a much more poetic approach to the landscape. Kevin O'Connell: Moments of Inertia is made up of gorgeous pigment prints on aluminum sheets that depict the high plains. O'Connell, a well-known Colorado photographer, has underscored the inherent horizontality of the prairie by creating exaggeratedly horizontal images. At first glance, the photos are almost minimalist, with a meandering stripe going across the middle that separates the sky at the top from the grasses at the bottom. None make this point better than an untitled piece showing a telephone pole in the extreme foreground; it divides the composition in half vertically, thus juxtaposing itself against the horizon line between land and sky.
For many years, O'Connell was known for his exquisitely done black-and-white platinum prints of scenes similar in composition to those in this show. His newer works are on a much bigger scale, however, and are done in color. And despite having lived a black-and-white existence for years, O'Connell has a great eye for color. In one pair, he's captured the scenery when the sky was at its bluest and the grasses at their most amber; in others, he's found different perfect pairings of tones.
The final solo at Robischon is the smart-looking Danae Falliers: Semi, part of the Denver photographer's series on interstate highways. Falliers is obviously taking photos from a moving car, because even in the pair of photos of a stationary object — a highway flyover — the digital prints are blurry. Most of the pieces here depict semis racing by, and the images convey the rapid movement of the trucks. To do this, Falliers has taken long exposures so that the trucks are reduced to horizontally oriented smears that appear to be abstracts until you look closely. They represent an updated futurism in which dynamic qualities such as the speeding truck have been reduced to a static image. They're great.
Picking up on the theme of the unlikely views of Colorado is Rick Dula: Rise and Fall, at the William Havu Gallery. Some of these fanatically detailed depictions of buildings are set elsewhere, but many are in Denver. And they fall into two distinct categories: those of buildings on the rise and those that look as though they might be about to fall down. The latter group is made up of renderings of run-down industrial plants and commercial or agricultural buildings; Dula found them in his travels throughout the U.S., photographing them and then using those images as his preliminary studies. But the construction pictures, which have both a visual appeal and something to say about Denver, are the most powerful.
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Dula built his reputation locally with his paintings of the construction of Daniel Libeskind's outrageous Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum. He was allowed on site, and during his many trips there, he took hundreds of photos to record the ever-changing details. The paintings make up the "Moment in Time" series and are typically set looking toward the outside from within the web of girders that define the Hamilton's flamboyant shapes. The series culminated in a billboard-sized mural on the Hamilton's second floor depicting that exact space before the structure was walled in.
Related to these are another group showing the construction of the Denver Justice Center, but the most interesting, because of its timing, is a single image of the Clyfford Still Museum being built titled "Still Under Construction." The Still is not a steel-frame building like the Hamilton, but was instead cast in place with concrete. So the possible see-through views were much more limited. Dula's view is sort of constructivist in composition, with the big squarish plywood form at the second floor dominating the painting. With the Still now nearly finished, the Dula scene is intriguing because it's so firmly gone, lost in the past — as recent as that past might be. And I think that quality — a scene that's gone — is one of the things that make Dula's construction paintings so engaging. That and the riot of details he's able to cram into them.
While many of the most important painters and photographers of the last century and a half came from around the world to Colorado to be inspired by its celebrity scenery, the fact that some of the artists who live here chose to look instead at more difficult subjects is something that's really pretty remarkable.