Robischon Gallery has a pair of solos in its front rooms that look so good, they could be the first shows of the fall season -- except that it's a month early. Installed in the entry space and the one behind it is JAMES COLBERT: The Long View; hung in the large single space that runs parallel is STEPHEN BATURA: Neighborhood. The two artists are very compatible stylistically, as both do contemporary representational painting, but they come at it from entirely different perspectives.
Although Batura has star billing at Robischon, it makes sense to begin with Colbert, as his work is the first thing up when you walk through the door. Colbert was born in Washington state, but he's lived in Colorado for decades, exhibiting in the area's galleries, art centers and museums for almost thirty years. He has a BFA from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Chuck Forsman's approach influenced Colbert heavily while he was at CU, which is easy to see in these recent pieces at Robischon. Forsman and Colbert are both part of a local school of contemporary landscape painters who traffic in the juxtaposition of natural beauty with the ugliness people bring to it.
A good example of this sensibility is "I Died 1000 Times," which is the image used on the show card. (Note to Colbert: Drop the overwrought titles.) The horizontal painting is divided in half vertically by a weathered timber that is part of a ruined house stripped to its framework. In the other half is a majestic mountain range. Each half is given equal weight visually, because the small house is in the extreme foreground while the expansive landscape is in the distant background. Very different in style but with a similar narrative is "I Saw His Face in the Sky," in which Colbert paints a single '50s tract house sitting in the middle of a bucolic scene of an evergreen forest.
As I noted, Batura, a highly regarded Denver painter, is likewise interested in representational imagery, but his work is not coming from the same perspective as Colbert's. Instead of scenery, the Denver native focuses on society. The paintings in Batura's Neighborhood are about old Denver houses and are based on historic photos from the Charles Lillybridge archive owned by the Colorado Historical Society, with the images available online through the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library. Taking inspiration from old photos is the kind of thing Batura's been doing for the past several years, and the Lillybridge collection, which encompasses some 1,300 items, has been of special interest to him. He discovered it in the 1990s, when he worked at the Central Library, and became inspired to base paintings on found photographs.
The first of these photo-based pieces that I remember seeing, back in the late '90s, were paintings of dresses, in a Pirate show titled Vitti. I'm not sure why -- perhaps it's the colors or the way the paint is handled -- but the houses in Neighborhood reminded me of the dresses in Vitti more than Batura's better-known train-wreck pictures or "The Lowry Trios" at the Schlessman Family Branch Library, which are also illustrations of buildings.
"The Lowry Trios" -- twelve related paintings about Lowry and nearby Montclair -- is one of a number of public commissions by Batura that can be seen around town, including murals in Union Station and at the Red Rocks Visitors Center. He's currently working on "Rehearsal," a mammoth, thirty-foot-tall view of an opera scene for the soon-to-be-finished Ellie Caulkins Opera House. With more than a hundred separate figures, "Rehearsal" is not based on a single photo, but on a collage of many different images brought together to lay out the scene.
The Robischon exhibition is conceived as an installation, with the pictures hanging at different levels around the room. This type of hanging, combined with the stylistic unity of all the paintings, makes them seem like parts of the same overreaching work of art.
Batura has long used a limited palette that, while not a monochrome, might as well be. There is some of this in Neighborhood, but there's no denying that Batura is starting to introduce more complex color schemes into his paintings. A couple of them, "day by day by day" and "only out of habit," are in full -- if washed out -- color. The added hues are the product of Batura's introduction of acrylic under-painting to his tried-and-true use of casein, a milk-based paint that he makes himself.
The houses in Neighborhood are all taken from the Lillybridge archive, and most of the ones that Batura chose to paint are extremely modest and plain in detail, though there's one tumbledown mansion, "thick as thieves," done in black on purple. The all-over deep purple, not to mention the black, lends the painting an eerie quality that's a perfect fit with the Addams Family-style house that Batura has meticulously rendered.
These paintings seem so familiar to those of us in old central Denver, because that's where the houses stand. It creates an unexpectedly comforting quality.
In addition to JAMES COLBERT and STEPHEN BATURA, Robischon has assembled a good-looking mini-survey back in the Viewing Room, Brad Miller, that includes examples of the regionally famous artist's ceramics, wood sculptures and burnt-paper pieces.
The week before last, the powers-that-be at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design announced that president Stephen Sumner's two-year reign was over. "There was no sense of mourning," said a faculty member who attended the meeting. That's an understatement.
I taught one class a semester at RMCAD between the fall term of 1999 and the spring term of 2003, and I got to know a lot of people there. This was when Steven Steele, son of the school's founder, Philip Steele, was the president, and he treated the place as the beloved family heirloom that it is to him. When he stepped down, I knew he'd left some big shoes to fill; I just didn't know his successor would fail so emphatically to fill them.
In the summer of 2003, the list of candidates for the presidency was whittled down to two finalists: Sumner, who was then president of the New World School of the Arts in Florida, and Neal King, RMCAD's provost. During the selection process, I got a call from RMCAD faculty member and sculptor Charles Parson, who was plugging a show he had somewhere. I knew that Parson was on the presidential selection committee, so I told him I thought King was clearly the best choice for the job. "We have two great candidates," he said. "You're wrong, Chuck," I replied. But as I hung up the phone, I knew that RMCAD was poised to make a very bad hiring call.
This was at the same time the school was embarking on a move from the ugly buildings on Evans Avenue in east Denver to the gorgeous campus on Pierce Street in Lakewood. One might expect a new president to have made at least a glad-handing appearance during the monumental relocation, but Sumner didn't.
Maybe his absence was a blessing, because once he got there, he sent most of the people at RMCAD reeling. In Sumner's initial meeting with the faculty, he began to shoot himself in the foot with a machine gun. For example, he wanted to be addressed as "Mr. President" -- no kidding -- and he wanted the male faculty to wear ties.
These quirky moves had a somewhat negative effect on morale, but they were nothing compared to the reaction to Sumner's firing of his former rival for the presidency, provost King. With the King firing, all hell broke loose, and Sumner had no chance of regaining the faculty's support -- even after promoting some of his harshest critics.
I covered King's firing ("Promises and Threats," January 22, 2004) and wrote stridently about it, because I wanted to do all I could to circumvent a secret plan Sumner had to get rid of others at RMCAD. I had inside information that Sumner was compiling formal complaint files on two of the school's most beloved teachers, Clark Richert (who was on the presidential search committee and had been in King's corner) and Ania Gola-Komar, with the presumed goal of ultimately firing them. I wanted to scare Sumner off, because I couldn't stand that some guy from out of town (who I knew was going to be gone in a year or two anyway) would swoop in and ruin the lives of two great people I've long admired for their dedication.
I think I can say that my plan worked, because after my piece appeared, Richert and Gola-Komar were off the hook as Sumner became increasingly circumspect about his behavior. There is no formal explanation for Sumner's departure, but the word is that RMCAD's board of trustees reacted to a second year of overwhelmingly negative appraisals of the president by the faculty.
There's a postscript to this story: Parson, Sumner's tireless cheerleader, has also left RMCAD. He wasn't forced out like his pal, but went under his own power to become head of the art department at the Community College of Denver.
Former president Steele is taking the helm as interim president at RMCAD, and a search for a permanent replacement will get under way soon. I wonder if King, who is now at Antioch College in New Hampshire, could be persuaded to come back? It's worth a try.
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