What constitutes Western art has been a hot topic among curators over the past twenty years. The answer is obvious when applied to material from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it gets murkier and murkier after the 1930s.
What caused the confusion, of course, was the rise of modernism, with one formerly representational artist after another embracing surrealism, transcendentalism, cubo-regionalism and, ultimately, abstract expressionism. But other artists held steadfast to the pre-existing styles, including romanticism, realism and impressionism. This division created a split so that parallel Western art scenes developed essentially independent of one another. So are the traditional artists the ones who may be described as Western artists? Or are the contemporary artists the real McCoy? How about both?
Ann Daley, a curator of American art associated with the Institute of Western Art at the Denver Art Museum, has been on the forefront of dealing with this divide between old-fashioned and new-fangled. In curating the permanent collection display installed in the Western galleries on level two of the DAM's Frederic C. Hamilton Building, Daley defines the topic as encompassing both, and she includes the expected cowboy-and-Indian pieces, both old and new, as well as some unexpected things, such as a conceptual DVD by Bruce Nauman and politically charged photos by Robert Adams. She clearly believes in the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to defining Western art. For Daley, if the art is about the West — regardless of style —and/or the artist lives out West, then the work qualifies as Western art.
In the spring of 2006, Daley was contacted by Kay Fowler and Nancy Stem of Fresco Fine Art Publications and asked to select artists for inclusion in a book about Colorado landscape art. At the same time, I was offered a job writing short essays on the artists Daley picked. As at the Hamilton, her choices for this book are interesting and represent her ongoing attempt to forge a new understanding of the idea of what constitutes Western art. In this case, she believes that all Colorado landscapes are relevant to the topic regardless of whether they are contemporary or traditional.
The book led to a major two-part show, Landscapes of Colorado, that includes the same roster of artists but with different pieces than those published. As a result, the book does not act as a catalogue for the show, and Daley was not directly involved the exhibit other than providing the list of artists. The ball was then passed, and the resulting exhibit was jointly organized by Robischon Gallery and the Center for Visual Art. The complicated installation of more than a hundred pieces in two separate venues was ably carried out by Jennifer Doran and Debra Demosthenes from Robischon and Jennifer Garner and Cecily Cullen from CVA.
One of the most compelling aspects of their installation is the underlying narrative. It almost apes a history show, seeming to fall into an imaginary chronological order, even though everything in it is just a year or two old — or, in some cases, brand new. Landscapes of Colorado starts at the CVA and includes the most realistic pieces in the initial spaces. As we wind our way through the CVA, works in more and more progressive styles appear. By the time we get to Robischon, we're completely in the realm of contemporary art.
In one of the very first passages in the show are two paintings by Daniel Sprick that fully express the split between traditional and contemporary art: "Four Mile Creek" looks like it was done a century ago, while the other, "Corner Window" is very up-to-date. Comparing the two, it's easy to see how subtle the distinctions between traditional and contemporary are — yet how crucial. The difference, I think, is not just the subject matter, but also the self-conscious photographic quality of "Corner Window," which is so distinct from the naturalistic approach of "Four Mile Creek."
This same tension is evident in the next set of spaces, but contemporary art is still the overriding sensibility. This is partly due to the fact that the traditional paintings are mostly smaller easel-sized pieces while the contemporary works are sometimes very large.
Contemporary photo-related landscapes by Daniel Morper and Marsha Wooley carry the main wall, and there's a super-expressionistic version of a stand of aspens by David Foley adjacent to them. To the left is a wall hung salon-style, so that works by many traditional artists — including Len Chmiel and James Biggers — are clustered together.
In the group of spaces that run along the northwest side of CVA, the look is thoroughly contemporary thanks to paintings by Tracy and Sushe Felix, Joellyn Duesberry and Jeremy Hillhouse, along with photos by Mark Sink and Evan Anderman. At this point in the show, the landscape is no longer the subject of the works but is instead the inspiration, with the artists taking compositional and representational liberties with the scenery.
The show continues over at Robischon, but first there's a break in the form of a Karen Kitchel solo, Natural Order: Notes for an Opera, installed in the window spaces at the front of the gallery. Kitchel is one of the artists in Landscapes of Colorado — her pieces are hung across from the salon group — so although it's a digression, it's an apt and well-placed one.
Kitchel, who used to live in Colorado but now lives in California, takes an interesting tactic regarding the Western landscape: Instead of showing sweeping vistas, she takes a close-up of the grasses and weeds that cover the ground. Kitchel then places the ordinarily unseen and unrecorded aspects of the landscape in a conceptual framework; for example, her serial paintings often reveal the passage of time, or the course of a journey, such as a walk in the fields. In Natural Order, it's predator-versus-prey in the tall grasses, with a snake pursuing a rabbit. Set into different acts represented by different multi-panel paintings, the "opera" begins with nothing other than the plants themselves, but then, slowly — and very subtly — the life-and-death drama unfolds.
Life and death is also relevant to the beginning of the second part of Landscapes of Colorado, with a small solo being given over to Jim Colbert, including his preliminary sketches and photos arranged on shelves. Earlier this summer, Colbert committed suicide, and that sad event led to this homage and the dedication of this show to his memory. Colbert's work does not show his desperate emotional state; his hyper-realist style is filled with rich, bright colors that are, if anything, uplifting. Typical of his style is the gorgeous "I Died 1000 Times" (pictured), which not only captures the majesty of the surroundings but also the damage being done to it by humanity.
Colbert was one of the region's most accomplished contemporary-representational painters, and beyond his section are others who have also built distinguished careers with new interpretations of the Western landscape, including Don Stinson and Chuck Forsman. Though now in South Carolina, John Hull lived in Colorado for a decade, and his pieces put a noir twist on Southern Colorado. He inhabited his pictures with dangerous-looking characters that seem to be up to no good. Across from the Hulls are paintings with a different kind of edge: Stephen Batura's acrylic-and-casein paintings that are based on archival photos. I can't leave out the renderings of the Rocky Mountain News Building being demolished by Rick Dula.
There are also a number of photographers in the Robischon section of Landscapes of Colorado, including an in-depth array of Eric Paddock's sociological shots of small towns, Kevin O'Connell's dreamy platinum prints of the horizon line, and David Sharpe's remarkable pinhole photo enlargements from his "Eastern Phenomenon" series that is set on the plains.
Ann Daley's effort to come up with a "big tent" under which artists taking antithetical aesthetic paths are brought together is definitely a noble cause. And her ideas are intelligent and well thought out. But for me, contemporary art, in that it reflects the world in which we live now, makes a lot more sense than traditional art, which looks back to a golden age that no longer exists — and maybe never did.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.