The continuing appeal of various forms of realism is remarkable when you consider that its would-be replacements, abstraction and conceptual art, have been around for a hundred years already. And the depiction of representational imagery shows no sign of becoming passé. Just look at Christoph Heinrich's Embrace! now at the Denver Art Museum. It consists of work by a group of credibly contemporary artists from around the world, several of whom are working with recognizable subjects.
But don't be misled. Not all of today's realist art is contemporary; in fact, most of it exists in the parallel universe of traditional art. The traditional artists, many of whom are quite successful, do updated takes on the old-timey styles of realism, impressionism and expressionism. Where things get really interesting, however, is with the short list of artists who have one foot in each of these realms. They function as contemporary artists while simultaneously playing the role of traditional ones.
Among the most obvious Colorado examples of this aesthetic bipolarism is Joellyn Duesberry, whose signature landscapes play well in both categories, being at once contemporary and traditional. This is amply demonstrated in Joellyn Duesberry: Landscape Survey, at Gallery 1261, an in-depth look at twenty years' worth of those paintings.
Joellyn Duesberry: Landscape Survey
Through February 27, at Gallery 1261, 1261 Delaware Street, 303-571-1261, www.gallery1261.com.
Jeff Aeling, Rick Dula and Jeanette Pasin Sloan
Through February 20, at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com.
Duesberry, who has a master's degree from the Institute of Fine Art at New York University, has been exhibiting since the 1980s. Despite doing vaguely traditional work, she earned her contemporary chops as a student of the late Richard Diebenkorn at the Santa Fe Institute. Diebenkorn created both abstract-expressionist pieces as well as abstracted representational work of the sort that Duesberry does, and it's not hard to see how well she absorbed her teacher's lessons. And although the scenes she captures aren't limited to the Western states, a Western sensibility seems to inform almost all of them.
One of these, "Entry Into Roxborough Park, Colorado," could be used as an exemplar of her style. This painting, which towers over the front space of the gallery — a traditionalist outpost, by the way — clearly illustrates Duesberry's signature taste for dramatic rendering; she obviously did it very quickly, and parts of the foreground have been sketched in with little more than scribbles. Then there's the character of her palette, in this case the one she needed to accurately convey the color of the scene. But in a Duesberry landscape, the colors only refer to nature and aren't completely naturalistic, being either more dusty or more bold, depending on where she places the tones in the picture.
Gallery 1261's Landscape Survey is a large outing for Duesberry, and if you're a fan of the landscape tradition, you really should see it.
Interestingly enough, there's another show just a few blocks away that also highlights an artist who paints landscapes that could be seen as either traditional or contemporary. Jeff Aeling is dedicated to the work of this Kansas City-based artist, who spent — and spends — time in Colorado. The exhibit is in the main space of the William Havu Gallery, a local landmark in the contemporary art scene as opposed to Gallery 1261's traditionalist bent.
Despite their similarities, Aeling's approach is quite different from Duesberry's. He's interested in conveying a meticulously detailed scene that's utterly realistic without being photographic in character. Instead of looking like photographs, these paintings are painterly and have been done in an updated version of heroic nineteenth-century realism.
Aeling's format is exaggerated in its horizontality to match up with the basic shape of his preferred subject in these paintings, the sprawling Great Plains under the open skies. In fact, it could be argued that it's the skies more than the plains that are the actual topics of these paintings. Using the atmospheric effects of the clouds across that long picture plane, Aeling lends the scenes a kind of cinematic feeling — which is why I kept thinking about the movie Giant while I was going through the show. And those wide black frames! They're perfect for stepping up the Wild West character of the paintings.
It's the new West — or would that be the aging new West? — that interests the artist featured in the self-titled Rick Dula, in the salon under the mezzanine at Havu. Dula is surely this season's hottest realist, being one of just three Colorado artists who made it into Embrace! His mural, "A Moment in Time: Here," has been a hit, as evidenced by the positive visitor comments coming in to the museum. Here's the question on everyone's lips: Has this buzz moved Heinrich to negotiate with Havu for the purchase of the piece so that it can become a permanent part of the Hamilton's interior? There's no official word yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it's already a done deal.
Dula is a photorealist, which means he also exists in both the traditional and contemporary camps of representational painting, but as that Embrace! inclusion shows, he's more clearly on the contemporary side of the dividing line. The Dula show at Havu is fairly modest and made up of smallish, easel-sized paintings. Some feature depictions of the Northwest coast, while others are set closer to home, including "A Moment in Time: Here" which depicts, like the DAM mural with the same title, a portion of the Hamilton building under construction.
Up on the mezzanine at Havu is Jeanette Pasin Sloan, a small show by another photorealist. The Chicago-born, New York-trained artist has been exhibiting nationally since the 1970s. Her chosen materials are gouache and watercolors on paper. Sloan controls these fluid paints to an astounding degree in order to produce the crisply detailed pieces that look more like color photos than paintings. Her subjects are extremely complex still-life scenes that sport complicated background patterns with reflective and transparent elements like silver cups and crystal bowls in the foreground. The compositions are rendered with utter accuracy in regard to the original still life settings.
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I'll be honest; I'm more comfortable looking at abstraction or conceptual art than I am at examining representational work. But I can't deny how much I love some of the styles it comes in. A favorite type of mine is American scene painting, sometimes called regionalism, that flourished from the '20s to the '40s. Because of the Broadmoor Academy and its successor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, Colorado became a national center for regionalism.
One of the top-tier artists from this time was Boardman Robinson, the school's director, who was known for his murals, including one in the humble U.S. Post Office in Englewood. Titled "Colorado Horse Sale," it's a lively scene filled with figures and horses. On a scale of one to ten, it's a ten.
But this being Colorado, that can only mean one thing: It's endangered — or it was. Discussions had been under way about closing the building and selling it. But that plan has been put on hold for the time being. Discussions are also under way to close and sell another historic post office, this one in Golden, where there's another gorgeous mural, "Building the New Road," a character-filled scene by Kenneth Evett, himself a student of Robinson's at the CSFAC.
Both murals are owned by the U.S. Postal Service and are likely to be removed if the offices are closed. If no effort is made to keep them here in Colorado, they may wind up in storage back east at the Smithsonian. If you haven't seen them, make the effort to do so before it's too late.