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Painting is a very old-fashioned method of making art. After all, it's been around for at least 15,000 years (as proven by cave paintings). Astoundingly, over those years painting has changed very little, except in terms of style. Otherwise, it's done the way it's always been done: An artist applies pigment by hand to an essentially flat surface. What worked for the caveman works today.

Even contemporary art, a realm filled with much hipper mediums such as installation and conceptual art, is dominated by the quaint, geriatric form of painting. Why? Supply and demand, cynics would say. Collectors like to hang paintings on their walls, so artists oblige.

But painting's appeal goes much deeper than that. At times it comes to incorporate an artist's intellectual, philosophical and even spiritual pursuits while still reflecting a wide variety of cultural and social factors. So perhaps it's appropriate that this year's art pre-season be launched with an important exhibit dedicated to a thoroughly modern look at the prehistoric art of painting: Nine Painters + One, currently on display at the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus.

At first glance, the exhibit appears to be tightly organized around the theme of ten artists (the show's name is unnecessarily obtuse) interested in contemporary takes on representational imagery. But it's not. That all the artists included here are working in broadly related approaches was purely accidental, if happily so. What makes the cogency of Nine Painters + One so amazing is the fact that it wasn't really curated at all. "Each of the art departments at the three schools on campus--Metropolitan State College, the Community College of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver--were asked to select three artists," says gallery director Carol Keller. "Then I chose one--so nine plus one."

Make no mistake: This is not a faculty show, nor are the artists selected by the three schools affiliated with them. Metro chose Richard Baker, William Haney and Gillian Theobald. CCD picked Chuck Forsman, Sandra Kaplan and Clark Richert. UCD settled on Jim Colbert, John Fudge and Kristen Peterson. And finally, Keller added Cameron Jones. "All the others are well-established artists with long careers behind them," she explains. "I added Cameron late in the game because I felt there should be an emerging artist in the show."

Keller wisely decided to ignore the internal divisions of the show when arranging the hanging, choosing instead to follow an instinctual plan. "The only real input I had in the show was to limit the size and number of pieces included so the work would fit the space," Keller says. But the space itself is less than ideal: The exhibit fills the main room beautifully but overflows into the small upstairs loft. Keller has learned to deal with the layout but says she'd "love to see an addition off the back of the building to provide for another gallery. Exhibition space is scarce on campus, especially considering that we serve three separate institutions."

The first painting the viewer encounters in Emmanuel's main space is Boulder artist Kristen Peterson's "Summer's Center," a horizontal easel painting depicting an idealized and conventionalized view of an imaginary landscape. In this roughly symmetrical scene, a round pond in a green meadow in the mid-ground is glimpsed through a bower of leaves overhead in the foreground; in the back, a glowing white semi-circular gap in the dark gray clouds takes the center of the picture. The painting's surface is extremely smooth and seamless, but the dramatic lighting conjures up an ominous mood that offsets the simple sweetness of the leaves and the idyllic setting of the pond.

This painting, as well as Peterson's "East to West" (which is marooned upstairs), is brand-new and shows further development in her work. True, both have her signature dreaminess--the result of her use of rich, dark shadows against gleaming, luminous lighted passages--but they are more abstract than her previous paintings. In "East to West," there's even a shift in perspective. And how about those thick vertical lines?

Across from "Summer's Center" hangs another painting that's so new it's still wet. "Anatomy Lesson" is by Chuck Forsman, another Boulder painter with a national reputation and, like Peterson, one more concerned with landscapes of the mind than with actual scenery. "Anatomy Lesson," which features an unnamed Western mountainside, lays out Forsman's established artistic agenda: to create paintings based on the worst things humanity does to the earth. Although the profile of the hill and the heroic storm clouds above are not unlike those seen in traditional Manifest Destiny landscapes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Forsman focuses the viewer's attention on the strip mining that has scarred the mountain. Layers of the rock from which the mountain is made have been exposed, as though an autopsy has been performed for an anatomy lesson. And the devastation extends clear down to the viewer's feet, since Forsman includes a black, fallen dead tree at the right of the painting's curved bottom.

 

Although she is painting figures instead of landscapes, Denver's Cameron Jones also is concerned with using her imagination rather than external reality as a guide. Two large, untitled vertical paintings, which hang directly across from Forsman's piece, reveal Jones's great gifts for composition and color-mixing. The painting on the left, a gorgeous pink monochrome, pictures a pair of mature nudes. A man facing the viewer leans to one side, counterbalancing, Old Master-style, the crouching woman with her back to us. On the right is a closely related, if less successful, blue-green monochrome. In this piece, a young couple, their backs to us, are seen carrying buckets into the distance. Jones takes a distinctively sketchy and almost-unfinished approach--in contrast to Peterson's and Forsman's careful detailing--that even allows her underpainting to show through at the margins. And she makes the most of the physical properties of the paint, the way it smears and flows.

That's not unlike the way Richard Baker paints. The artist from Valley Center, California, is represented by three very nice square still-life paintings--"Bladderpod," "Red Larkspur" and "Parry's Larkspur"--that hang together almost as a triptych. Each beautifully colored painting catches a blurry close-up of the flowers in the titles. Baker lays down a smeary atmospheric ground first, then puts the flowers on top in smudgy thick paint, constructing a depth of field without having to incorporate details.

Even less detailed are the four small landscapes from Seattle artist Gillian Theobald's "Night Dream" series: squares of dark, saturated color with murky suggestions of landscape such as tree silhouettes painted across the bottom in a slightly darker shade than the rest of the panel. The landscapes in these nearly one-color squares, which hang in a horizontal line, are so minimally fleshed out, they're barely there at all.

Opposite Theobald's paintings, Clark Richert takes geometry to a very different end in the very different (for him) "Melancholia II: The True Story..." On a pair of large panels, using a mathematically constructed perspective, Richert literally illustrates illusionary space. A nude woman seen from the rear stands in a studio, surrounded by a wide assortment of Richert's artworks--his more typical, non-objective pieces--that have been arrayed around the room. Out the studio's window, the multicolored geodesic domes of "Drop City" can be seen. Today the real "Drop City" stands in ruins outside of Trinidad; Richert's original domes were made of painted sheet metal salvaged from wrecked cars that made up the southern Colorado commune of the same name.

William Haney, a Louisville, Kentucky, artist who died in 1992, also employed a careful geometric framework. In his compelling "The Wizard of Never Never Land," bright neon bars are placed right on the picture plane. Receding behind the bars and dominated by blood red is an enigmatic composition featuring a seated man, doubtless the wizard of the title, in a room filled with scientific equipment of ambiguous function. And what to make of the Italian Renaissance-style horse in the showcase? In the Seventies Haney was associated with the photo-realist movement that championed a fanatically accurate handling of representational images. But "The Wizard" does not fall into this camp, even if the explicit mathematical handling of pictorial depth is an obvious outgrowth of the photo-realist method. Even Haney's more conventional "Marry Off," the raucous and crowded scene of a marriage displayed upstairs in the loft, lacks the stilted clarity of photo-realism.

The three remaining artists, however, clearly owe a full-fledged debt to photo-realism. Emmanuel's large and prime back wall carries the monumental "Memories of Dreams," by Boulder's highly regarded Jim Colbert. The format is exaggeratedly horizontal, with shifting perspectives. On the left side, a blushingly accurate nude woman in a full frontal pose stands in the shade of some trees; she's been juxtaposed with one of those stationary binocular viewers--perhaps that's how Colbert happened to see her.

Sandra Kaplan's piece, "Wave Hill, 360 Degrees Series," is similar in shape and visual effect; unfortunately, the viewer can't compare the two back-to-back, so to speak, since Kaplan's triptych is crowded into the loft. As the title implies, the painting involves a panoramic view of a hill; by flattening the scene, Kaplan creates a new one. For example, the path on which she stands becomes a pair of diagonals instead of just one. Kaplan's a whiz at details, and she must have spent scores of hours laying down this very dense painting.

Also upstairs is John Fudge's "Catalogue Shopping," the most self-consciously photographic piece in the show. Fudge has "tiled" the painting with different shots related to women's sexuality (high-heeled shoes, brassieres and women in naughty lingerie)--or is that men's fetishes? The different shots have been arranged hieratically, with a buxom woman with a come-hither smile placed in the featured spot at the bottom center. Downstairs is a quieter example of Fudge's skills as a painter that no doubt patched things up at home: It's a loving portrait of the artist's wife, Jane.

 

Although Keller swears it wasn't the original intent of the show, Nine Painters + One offers an in-depth look at the way contemporary artists continue to work with recognizable subjects--a focus as old as the caveman.

Nine Painters + One, through September 18 at the Emmanuel Gallery, 10th and Lawrence streets on the Auraria campus, 556-8337.


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