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Land Minds

"Surfacing: Reversal of Ruins, Spiral Jetty, February, 2003 PM," by Don Stinson, oil on linen.

Putting together a coherent art show is difficult, and so many of the shows I see -- even some of the good ones -- don't exactly make sense. Imagine, then, how rare it is to find not one, but three shows that all make sense. And not only that, but the three interrelate to such a great extent that they could be viewed as a single ad hoc exhibit.

The shows are now on display at the Robischon Gallery in LoDo, and the collective theme is the Western landscape as interpreted by established Colorado contemporary artists. All three were expertly organized and handsomely arranged by the gallery's co-director, Jennifer Doran.

Installed in the two front spaces and in one of the side galleries is Don Stinson: Art & Ruins, which examines a series of recent paintings by this well-known artist from Evergreen. Over the last decade or so, Stinson has made a reputation with paintings and mixed-media pieces in which neglected roadside attractions, including crumbling gas stations, boarded-up motels and, most famously, abandoned drive-in movie theaters, are placed in the foreground, with majestic Western scenery filling the background.

The new pieces are a logical outgrowth of these paintings of modern ruins. But this time, Stinson is rendering what could be called post-modern ruins -- three internationally renowned conceptual earthworks. From a certain standpoint, it could be argued that representational painting and conceptual art are on opposite ends of the art world, with the former coming out of an age-old tradition and the latter breaking new ground, so to speak. But Stinson doesn't see it that way, or recognize the distinction. He points out that conceptual art is based on ideas, and that "painting has a very direct connection to ideas -- maybe the most direct."

His show includes three large paintings, each devoted to one of the selected earthworks, along with more than a dozen small watercolors. The first of the major paintings is "Surfacing: Reversal of Ruins, Spiral Jetty, February 2003, PM," an oil on linen that captures the late Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in the afternoon.

"Spiral Jetty," from 1970, is a series of large granite boulders arranged in the form of a spiral spit of land going out from the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake; its distinctive form is outlined by water. The Smithson became world-famous almost immediately after it was completed, and it has been illustrated and discussed in just about every historical art survey of the twentieth century published since then. The enduring fame of "Spiral Jetty" is especially interesting because the work was completely invisible for decades, having been flooded over soon after Smithson finished it. In 2003, drought caused the water level of the lake to fall, and "Spiral Jetty" was again visible, allowing Stinson to record it before it disappeared again, which it has.

The monumental painting is made up of a theatrically cloud-streaked sky with a dark bar of land across the bottom. Near the middle is a small group of rocks in the water. If Stinson hadn't referred to a "Spiral Jetty" in the epic-length title, viewers might think they were looking at a picturesque view of a lakefront. But once they are tipped off, the meaning changes, making Stinson's outlandish claim that painting is conceptual a pretty plausible one after all.

The other major Stinson paintings of earthworks are "On the Map: Viewing Stations, Sun Tunnels, December, 2003 AM," depicting Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels," from 1973, and "High Beams & Starlight: Beyond Absence, Double Negative, July, 2003 PM," which illustrates Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," completed in 1970. Both paintings are night views. Stinson has a special interest in painting the night, and he's very adept at it.

In the gallery around the corner from the spaces devoted to Stinson is a smart-looking photography show called Chuck Forsman: Western Rider. It's made up of black-and-white photographs of Western scenery taken from inside a car, so that the windshield and side windows become a major part of the compositions. Like Stinson, Forsman also depicts earthworks, but the ones he chooses are not works of art; instead, they're the scars left by industry.

Forsman, who's from Boulder, is not renowned as a photographer, but as one of the state's most prominent painters. However, photography is nothing new for him -- he's been taking photos all along. They have a lot to do with how he creates his paintings, and it's clear after seeing Western Rider that Forsman uses photos as preparatory studies.

The Forsman photos are elegant, and the use of the car's interior is very effective, adding both to the compositions and to the narrative content. The Forsman exhibit coincides with the publication of a book of his photos, Western Rider: Views From a Car Window, which is available at the gallery.

 

The last of the three shows at Robischon is Eric Paddock/Jim Colbert, which is installed in the Viewing Room Gallery. The smallish room has been divided between the two artists, with the lion's share given over to Eric Paddock's lyrical photographs of the transitory nature of the built environment. Some of these photos are included in Paddock's book, Belonging to the West, published in 1996, though others were done more recently.

In the photos, Paddock, who lives in Denver, takes timeworn shacks and trailers and makes them look positively quaint, as in the color photograph "Mobile Home, Limon." "I've looked at a lot of early photos of the cultural landscape of Colorado," Paddock says, "especially 'real photo' postcards done from 1907 until the 1940s. I was impressed with their informality; they're kind of sweet and have an affirmative outlook. In these photos, I was searching for the same attitude."

Paddock isn't kidding when he says he's looked at "a lot of early photos," because his day job forces him to: He's the photo curator at the Colorado Historical Society, which has an impressive collection.

Paddock also was inspired by painting, in particular the work of the luminists of the mid-nineteenth century, who were interested in the effects of light. Paddock is very interested in light, too, and in some sense, his photos are about light. But they're also about the transformation of the environment. "They're elegies to landscapes that are disappearing," says Paddock. This interest in the vanishing landscape leads back to onetime Colorado photographer Robert Adams, and Paddock cites him as being first among his stylistic mentors.

The other artist in the Viewing Room is Boulder's Jim Colbert, who is represented by just two paintings: "Colorado Monument" and "Ingram Creek Falls," both in oil on canvas. The paintings are large and impressive. Stylistically, Colbert is taking his cue from early-twentieth-century landscape painting, but he's toned the colors way up. In some ways, the Colberts reminded me of the work of the late Birger Sandzén, a Kansas artist who spent a good deal of time during the 1920s and '30s painting the Colorado Rockies.

Unlike Stinson, Forsman and Paddock, Colbert does not examine decay. Instead, he conveys the scene in a non-narrative way, simply reveling in the beauty of it as expressed in juicy passages of paint. But just like them, he succeeds in using the landscape to inspire truly first-rate works of art that are based on tradition yet fully contemporary.


The interaction of nature and culture was a subject close to the heart of Ron Wohlauer, one of the greatest photographers to have ever worked in this region. Sadly, Wohlauer died on March 13 after a long struggle with colon cancer.

Wohlauer was a photographer's photographer, and everyone knew it from the minute they met him. The tipoff was that his fingernails were painted black, like some goth kid. But for Wohlauer, a tweedy-looking sort of guy, the black fingernails weren't an existential fashion statement; they represented a solution to a problem. He had noticed that his fingernails reflected light, leaving nearly invisible vapors at the top of the print. Nearly invisible or not, it was annoying to Wohlauer -- hence the black fingernails. Wohlauer would do anything to make his photographs absolutely flawless, and he succeeded over and over again.

Though born in Akron, Ohio, in 1947, Wohlauer grew up in Denver. He began his academic career as a historian and earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in history from the University of Colorado at Boulder, going on to undertake doctoral studies in the field at Cambridge University. Then he turned his attention to photography and received a master's degree in the subject from the University of Oregon. He also studied with Brett Weston in California and, as a result, became heir to the tradition of West Coast photography.

Over the years, Wohlauer became known for his meticulous photographs. Though best remembered as a landscape photographer, he also did figure studies and interiors. His work has been compiled in two books: 1985's Eye of the Storm, and Small Rooms & Hidden Places, which, in a sad irony, was released just a week after he died.

Wohlauer was also a respected art educator who taught at the Community College of Denver from 1975 until last year. One of his great achievements was singlehandedly organizing the international conference, Photography and the Creative Process, presented at the Auraria campus in 1998.

Oddly, considering his formidable reputation, Wohlauer had not been the subject of a solo show in town for more than a decade and was only occasionally included in group shows. That means that many people have never seen his work, a situation that will be rectified when the Colorado Photographic Arts Center mounts a memorial exhibit this fall. Too bad no one thought to give him a show last year, when he could have enjoyed it along with the rest of us.


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