The landscape has played a persistent role in providing themes for artists, not just in the expected neo-traditional categories, but also — and of more interest to me — in modern and contemporary art. As an example, "Western" art has recently been redefined so that it is no longer dominated only by depictions of the mountains, cowboys and Indians and the like, but can include anything made in the West, regardless of style.
I bring up these issues because there are several shows on display right now that illustrate one or both of them. A good example is Object/Nature, a group show at Robischon Gallery that takes up the topic of the landscape, primarily in the West.
See also: Photos: Nature heavily influences shows at Robischon and William Havu galleries
Through March 2, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, www.robischongallery.com.Through March 2, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com.
Walking into the front space feels like wandering into a winter forest filled with bare white trees. As he has before, Colorado sculptor John McEnroe has found the forms for his sculptures by appropriating the shapes of things that already exist. (This is what he did for his notorious "National Velvet," which is really just a pile of red sandbags — honest.) For his work here — which comes from his recent "Half Life" series — McEnroe has cast trees in resin. The trees, like the stump that became "Torso," were killed by mining, so the ethereal visuals are set against an environmental commentary. This dynamic between beauty and truth is also expressed by old books, many on Western topics, entombed in blocks of resin. McEnroe's work is relentlessly interesting, but these "Half Life" pieces struck me as being more poetic than usual.
In the next space are David Zimmer's signature wall installations, in which the Denver artist simultaneously reconciles the past and the future and strikes a compromise between nature and science. He does this through a clutch of high-tech methods, including tiny digital video cameras that captured the images projected onto LED screens, which Zimmer has encased in antique-looking enclosures. The two pieces in which birds are the subjects, "Chorus #2" and "Blue Bird Box," are really compelling. In both, screens show birds periodically alighting in the foreground. In "Chorus #2," three screens are encased in three glass containers; "Blue Bird Box" has its single screen encased in a box.
In the L-shaped space beyond the Zimmers are California artist Karen Kitchel's staggeringly accurate hyper-realistic renditions of grasses and native plants done in oil on panel; her display, called "Walking Through the Fire," is a freestanding solo within Object/Nature. On the one hand, Kitchel is doing something artists have done forever: painting the landscape. But the way she does it turns the accepted standards upside down. Her landscapes aren't sweeping vistas, but are instead what she sees when she looks straight down at the ground — just a little patch of nature. Her interest in details of nature as opposed to the scenery itself has to do with the idea that, increasingly, the only way to see nature is through bits and pieces. Despite this heavy narrative, the paintings themselves are lyrical and beautiful.
In the space behind the Kitchel section are three videos by New Yorker William Lamson. The obvious subjects are a bottle, a Mylar blanket and Lamson himself. The less obvious topics are the forces of nature. In the self-portrait "Action for the Paiva," a wall-sized projection, Lamson seems to be standing on a river. You have to look closely to notice that he and the water are slowly moving. The soundtrack is perfect — the ambient sounds of birds. At first I thought it was an animation, but it's actually a video of Lamson standing on a submerged platform. The effect is remarkable.
Finally, there's a duet in the small back gallery made up of ceramic and photographic takes on topiary by Boulder artist Kim Dickey and collages by Tyler Beard from Denver. On a stage is Dickey's "Half Arch," a rendition of a hedge fragment made of aluminum covered with ceramic quatrefoils; "Schneeballen," which is based on a sphere-shaped bush and is covered with ceramic rosettes; and, finally, a digital print of the hedge corridor at Versailles. Beard's works on paper from his "Otherscapes" series begin with vintage found images of nature, on top of which he has imposed a cut-out of an abstract shape in some bold color. The sensibility is very post-Christo, with Beard sharing the same sense for intervention in nature. There are also some larger, more abstract collages, and those are great, too.
Nature also serves as inspiration for two shows at the William Havu Gallery. First there's 100 Years of Painting: Sam Scott & Jim Waid, which fills the entire ground floor, with both artists — each of whom account for fifty years of that hundred — using the landscape as stepping-off points for abstracts.
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Scott, who lives in New Mexico, is well known in Denver, and his work has been shown here for decades. Trained as an abstract expressionist, he did his graduate work at the renowned Maryland Institute College of Art, a national center for the style. So it's no surprise that his paintings have a lot of abstract expressionism in them. But they also have elements that don't fit with the standards of the mostly non-objective approach, because there's a landscape underneath. True, Scott has successfully hidden this subject beneath the ab-ex smears, rubs, scratches and paint-outs, but it's there nonetheless, as noted in the title of the series they're from, "Earth, Water & Sky."
Waid, from Arizona, also does abstracted landscapes, but because there are clearly recognizable things like birds and flowers in them, the viewer is clued into that fact more quickly than in Scott's pieces. Waid does have some abstract expressionism in him, because he's more or less an action painter — attacking the canvas with pigment — but with all the recognizable things, he's more of a neo-expressionist. One striking feature is the garish color choices he's made against dark backgrounds. On some level, they refer to Mexican souvenirs like fluorescent paintings on black velvet.
Finally, up on the mezzanine, there's Homare Ikeda/New Works, which is dominated by paintings on paper by this well-known Colorado artist. Everything is in Ikeda's highly original style, in which he creates shapes derived from nature and then crams as many of them into the picture as he can — not just next to one another, but over each other — and in the process creates a precarious pictorial balance that seems as though it's going to collapse into visual chaos but somehow doesn't. His colors are deep and rich, and they lend the works an atmospheric quality, as though we are looking into a hidden world.
All nine artists on view at Robischon and Havu deal with the landscape in their own ways, and eight of them are working in the West. That gives us a special relationship with them, because we live here, too.