Home on the Range

"Chrome Doors at the Craig Drive-In," by Don Stinson, oil on panel.

There's a lot of gossip in the local art world. Some of the rumors don't make sense, which usually means they're not true. But I'm privy to one group of gabbers who wind up being correct most of the time. It's hard to pinpoint the source of this collective commentary -- perhaps it's somewhere in the South Pacific -- but it's undeniable that these accounts of friends of friends often accurately predict the immediate future.

The most recent example concerns the actions of the City Selection Committee, which is charged with choosing an architect to design the new freestanding wing for the Denver Art Museum. The building -- envisioned as a world-class work of architecture -- will be constructed between Acoma and Bannock streets and West 12th and West 13th avenues.

Two weeks before the committee actually went to the trouble of formally making its decision, the word on the street was that architects Steven Holl and Robert Venturi were out, and Arata Isozaki, Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne were in. And that's exactly what happened on May 22 when a list of five candidates was culled down to three.

How do these friends of friends know?

The press briefing began in an amusing way, noteworthy of Hollywood. The DAM's able director, Lewis Sharp, Denver planning czar (czarina?) Jennifer Moulton, Rocky Mountain News art critic Mary Chandler, Denver Post reporter Joanne Ditmer and I were all together in the same elevator. We were trying to get to an upper-story conference room so that committee members Moulton and Sharp could fill us in. But it was a Monday, when only the main floor is open, so the elevators were programmed not to rise above the first floor. Never ruffled, Sharp summoned a guard to help. Unfortunately, the guy, who was obviously new, didn't recognize the big boss.

"And you are . . .?" he asked in a what seemed like a dead-on David Spade impersonation.

It was really funny. Luckily for the new guy, security officer David Howard noticed what was happening, and like a young Tommy Lee Jones, he ran over from his post at the entrance to the Matisse show and in seconds had us whisked on our way.

Once we were settled in the conference room, Sharp was like a kid in a candy store, seemingly ecstatic to be one step closer to the end of what has so far been a smooth-as-silk process. "The three [Isozaki, Libeskind and Mayne] were chosen for positive reasons, rather than the two [Holl and Venturi] having been dropped off for negative ones," he said, adding that Libeskind "just exploded with his expressive vision of architecture," there was "something magical" about Isozaki, and Mayne came across as the "architect's architect." Isozaki has already done several museums -- most notably the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art -- as has Libeskind, who could, if he wanted to, spend the rest of his life designing Jewish museums, as he has already done in Berlin and San Francisco. But the DAM wing would be Mayne's first museum and a bigger deal to him.

All three architects will be in town on June 6 to participate in a public forum at the Denver Public Library's Conference Center, and the winner will be announced in mid-July.

But before that, I expect the in-the-know chatterboxes to call it right again.

There's another type of word of mouth that is not so much prophetic as reflective: the raves or rants about various exhibits. The pair of impressive shows currently at the Robischon Gallery, Don Stinson: Vanishing Points and Chuck Forsman, have elicited a lot of local commentary, and nearly all of it is good. The two artists are among the most respected contemporary representational painters in the region.

Vanishing Points is the first show since Robischon moved from North Capitol Hill to lower downtown in 1990 in which a single artist has been given the entire main space. Usually, temporary walls divide the large area, allowing for two or even three solos to be mounted simultaneously.

All of Stinson's mural-sized paintings are closely linked to one another in style and subject matter. The typical painting shows the ruins of modern life set in a majestic Western landscape somewhere between Texas and the Canadian border. From time to time, Stinson, who is from Denver, has expressed this lost-West theme with mixed-media pieces and even installations, but for this show he's represented by good old-fashioned oil paintings in a contemporary representational vein -- exactly the kind of thing that's made him nationally famous.

Stinson began his art education in the 1970s at the Banff School of the Fine Arts in Alberta and later earned a BFA at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In the '80s he moved to Boston, where he got his MFA jointly from Tufts University and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. By 1990 he was back in Colorado. This is his third solo at Robischon.

Stinson is deft with a paintbrush and has an instinctive sense for composition, as shown off in "Outposts," one of the first paintings you see as you enter the gallery.

Across the bottom of this exaggeratedly horizontal panel is a strip of high desert plain with its defining flat topography and sparse vegetation. Most of the painting concerns the sky, which is deep blue with windblown clouds in white and bluish white. Stinson puts a spin on this traditional landscape, however, by including a grid of light poles that once illuminated a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Aside from being clever composition devices, the light poles add an enigmatic narrative component: What is that parking lot doing in the middle of God's country? And isn't Stinson romanticizing it instead of making fun of it by recognizing the beauty inherent in modernity? Well, at least when it is in disrepair and isn't too shiny.

Across from "Outposts" is the more modest "Stuckey's -- The Canopy," in which the zig-zagging folded plate roof of an abandoned gas-pump shelter looks charming set before a prairie horizon at sunrise.

One of the most ambitious paintings here is the monumental two-panel "The Necessity for Ruins." In it, a mountain meadow is seen, with peaks in the background. But the composition is bracketed by an aging drive-in-movie screen on the left and a dilapidated ticket booth on the right.

Deserted and neglected drive-ins are a favorite topic for Stinson. Another good example of the type is "Chrome Doors at the Craig Drive-In," in which a screen -- made to look like a nineteenth-century barn -- is in the center of the picture.

In contrast to the large scale of the Stinson show is Chuck Forsman, made up of only five paintings in the Viewing Room Gallery at Robischon.

One of the deans of contemporary representational art in Colorado, Forsman is also one of the pioneers of paintings about the assault on the environment.

He began by earning a BA and an MFA from the University of California at Davis, which seems to routinely churn out first-rate artists. In 1971 he joined the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has influenced generations of students over the last thirty years, some of whom have become respected artists in their own right.

The paintings at Robischon are a continuation of his reflections on the rape of the land, but the scenes within them are imaginary and hypothetical -- thank goodness.

In the stunning "Day Moon," Forsman places the catch basin below a dam at the center of the picture. In a way, the light reflected off the surface looks like the moon; hence the title. In the background is an uplifted desert cliff, spotlighted by the bright sunshine. Inconspicuous and dwarfed by the landscape are people on one of the dam's observation decks. People may seem small in comparison to the vastness of nature, but that doesn't stop them from destroying the land.

Notably less picturesque is "Gold and Dust," which shows a mountaintop being ground down through strip mining. The dust from the operation has formed into a bank of dust clouds off the top of the disappearing peak.

Two of the paintings seem to indicate a new direction for Forsman. In "Drought & Disinterment" and "Grey Area," he delves into a kind of surrealism or, more properly, fantasy realism. Both are stunning essays on enigmatic landscapes.

The local scenery is changing for both good and bad, as recorded by these two artists. The same can be said about the vacant lot near the DAM. All of this and more gives those of us on the art scene plenty of stuff to talk about.

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