"excursion," by Stephen Batura, casein and acrylic on 
"excursion," by Stephen Batura, casein and acrylic on panel.

Depth Perceptions

Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, has been putting a lot of effort into expanding that plucky little institution, which occupies only limited space on a first floor and mezzanine at Sakura Square. Her plan to construct a from-the-ground-up building is unfolding, and the competition to select an architect is well apace, with six finalists from around the world vying for the gig. Payton also came up with another expansion idea: off-site exhibitions. One such offering is middle ground: STEPHEN BATURA, a solo that spotlights one of Denver's best contemporary painters.

The Batura show is in a strange place called the Walnut Foundry, located in the northern reaches of the railroad district. This is a hot area, and gentrification has gotten within a couple blocks of the building. From the street, the Walnut Foundry seems "hot," too, but that's only because it looks like an EPA Superfund site. It's even surrounded by a forbidding-looking chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

In fairness, I need to point out that this bad first impression turned out to be wrong. Outside, the Walnut may be pretty scruffy, but inside, it's quite spiffy. Beyond the new glass front doors, there's a large, open room beautifully lit by skylights. And as validated by the breathtaking middle ground, it's a great place to have an exhibit. This much room might be a daunting task for many artists to fill, but not Batura, who, besides being extremely prolific, does enormous, mural-sized paintings.


middle ground: STEPHEN BATURA and Dave Yust: PAINTING IN CIRCLES and Other Abstract Works

middle ground: STEPHEN BATURA
Through January 18, Walnut Foundry, 3002 Walnut Street, 303-298-7554

Dave Yust: PAINTING IN CIRCLES and Other Abstract Works
Through January 3, Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, 201 South College Avenue, Fort Collins, 1-970-482-2787

Batura was born in Denver in 1959 and received his BFA in 1983 from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's exhibited his work for nearly fifteen years, in such low-down locales as Pirate and such upscale spots such as the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, and Copenhagen's ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Batura has also received commissions for murals that are now installed in Union Station in LoDo, the Schlessman Family Library at Lowry and the Burnham Hoyt Visitor Center at Red Rocks Park in Morrison.

The pieces on display at the Walnut Foundry represent the latest examples of Batura's longtime interest in using historic photos as the first step in creating his expansive representational paintings. He uses photos from the collection housed in the Denver Public Library's Western History Department, a treasure trove he became interested in several years ago while working at the Central Library.

These DPL photos are available online, and Batura selects images, prints them out and then uses them to determine the specific details of his paintings. "I sometimes crop them for effect," Batura explains, "but I don't do any manipulation; I don't put figures in. People have compared me to Mark Tansey, but he's all about manipulation, and I'm completely about reality."

Though the imagery in these paintings originated in photography, Batura does not see himself as being a photo-realist. I know what he means: His surfaces are way too painterly and imprecise. However, I can also understand why many would link his work to photo-realism. They are, after all, very obviously based on photos.

For many years, Batura exclusively used casein, an old-fashioned milk-based pigment, and although that limited his palette, the effects he got were impressive. Some of these newest paintings are done with acrylics combined with casein, which allows him to do some full-color paintings, such as "commotion," instead of just monochrome or duotone ones, as in the green-and-white "excursion" or the orange "tomorrow."

The scenes Batura selects are laden with drama, and some have an almost Hollywood-movie quality to them, including "nineteen twenty-one," one of several about the aftermath of train wrecks. The wonderful "misconception" depicts sprawling construction projects -- in this case, moving a house across a ravine. All of the paintings are set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, which is when the photos Batura used were originally taken. This fact is revealed by the style of clothing worn by the workers, the horse-drawn vehicles, and the trains and buildings themselves.

Batura's middle ground has a lot to recommend it -- as does the MCA's idea of giving a worthy Colorado artist a solo. Let's hope it's the first of many, and not simply a change of pace.

While I'm on the topic of worthy Colorado artists being feted with solos, there's Dave Yust: PAINTING IN CIRCLES and Other Abstract Works at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Fort Collins. The MOCA, as it is called, has done a great deal to promote local artists, and well-known abstractionist Yust is the latest to be given a star turn in its galleries.

Yust was born in Kansas in 1939. He earned a BFA at the University of Kansas in the early 1960s and, shortly after, an MFA at the University of Oregon. In 1965 he moved to Fort Collins to take a job teaching art at Colorado State University, where he is still on the faculty. In the intervening decades, Yust has produced a sizable body of paintings, more than forty of which are on display at MOCA.

These pieces range in date from 1966 to 2003, spanning the artist's entire career. But Yust, who put together the show with the MOCA's ace curator, Erica France, does not consider it a retrospective. "I try to avoid the R-word regarding this show," he muses. "It touches on only a few things, about how certain things evolved. I hope I provided the museum with the paintings I did along the way that help to explain how I got to where I am today."

I think Yust was successful in explicating his development as an artist. The work, which is arranged chronologically, leads the viewer from the early organic abstractions to the later geometric abstractions and, with the newest ones, back to the organic again. So although the word "circles" in the show's title refers, according to Yust, to the shapes themselves, it could also be used poetically to mean that he's come full circle in a pictorial sense.

Most of the paintings in the MOCA exhibit will be unfamiliar. Many have never been exhibited before, and others haven't been shown in decades. Right off the bat, there's something unexpected in the spectacular diamond-shaped panel "Yellow and Blue Fields," from 1966. The way the paint has been thickly applied is absolutely something, though Yust, who prefers thin applications, almost never did that again.

While the overall effect of the painting is organic, there are also geometric elements, in particular the division of the canvas into two blue and two yellow squares. True, the squares recede visually, as they are mostly painted over -- but they are still there. Thus the seeds for Yust's future forays into geometric abstraction were already being sown, even in the most organic of his early paintings.

"I want to explore how geometry and biomorphism work together," Yust notes. "Some [pieces] are a little more biomorphic, some are a little more geometric. It's not something I think about doing consciously; I just do it subconsciously. I guess it's something that tastes good to me visually."

Another 1960s painting combining geometry and organic shapes is the wonderful "Yellow and Mustard Triangular Fields," in which the use of hard edges begins to play a more important role. This same balance of the geometric and the organic is employed in a pair of gorgeous matching compositions, "Red Field and Square" and "Violet Field and Square," which are hung side by side at MOCA.

In 1969, Yust began to do a series of paintings that were programmatic in that aspects of them were pre-determined -- something he'd actually been doing all along, but with less emphasis. He worked with variable elements, including matteness and shininess, versus constant ones, such as color values, and a few of those combinations are on display at MOCA. The programmatic paintings, which are hard-edged, are the kind that Yust is best known for. They really hit their mark and made Yust famous in the area at the time. Broadly speaking, though his programs would change and evolve over the years, Yust stayed interested in hard-edged abstraction into the early 1980s, and the idea of using pre-ordained programs has held his attention even longer -- right up to his latest paintings.

The galleries that include these abstractions knocked me out. The two majestic black-and-white paintings, "CC 66 CIS 50" and "CC 51 CIS 35," both from Yust's "Circular Composition" series, are heart-stopping, especially hanging together as they are here. Also beautiful -- and also part of the amazing "Circular Composition" group -- are the two that are mostly red with purple accents, "CC 26 CIS 11" and "CC 46 CIS 30."

From the 1980s to the present, Yust returned to abstractions that were mostly organic. His handling of color also changed, becoming more blended, with multi-tonal fields. (In the earlier hard-edged pieces, colors were applied evenly in single-tone fields.) The newest works -- both the "Nazca" pieces and the "Catenary Curve" paintings -- include lines, but rather than being geometric, they follow hypothetical contours naturalistically. Yust points out that even though he wasn't aware of the Nazca lines in Peru until the 1980s, Nazca-esque lines appear in his earliest paintings. See, I told you he'd come back to where he started.

A revelation of the show is how well the Yusts, especially the hard-edged ones, have held up over the years. The forms and the colors he incorporates look totally fresh and new even in those paintings that, unbelievably, are pushing forty years old. This makes his work completely relevant to what's happening now and makes that long drive to Fort Collins something worth doing.


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