Reality Check

For many years, getting real was the chief preoccupation of the world's painters. The Stone Age artists who decorated all those caves in France and Spain wanted views for their viewless spaces, and they painted what they knew: mainly bison and horses. The idea that painting exists to provide a window on the world has been the dominant theme of art for most of the thousands of years since. From the ancient Greeks and Romans up through the Middle Ages, into the Italian Renaissance and culminating with the French Impressionists, painters tried to bring the external world--the real world--into their paintings.

But a century or so ago, this age-old artistic pursuit was called into question by two history-making events: the rise of modernist abstraction and the development of photography as a fine-art medium. Abstraction, which took its first tentative steps with Van Gogh and Cezanne, changed the focus of painters. Suddenly a painting did not sink or swim according to how closely reality was recorded, but rather according to how the paint was used. And photography could more accurately convey objective reality than even the most carefully conceived and finely detailed painting.

Realistic art was on the wane for most of the twentieth century. But by the 1960s, it began to creep back into fashion, first with the pop artists and then with their progeny among the photorealists. The move back to representational imagery really came on full-bore in the 1980s, with the rise of neo-expressionism and revivals of an array of realist and surrealist styles. Today, it's fair to say, recognizable subject matter is back with a vengeance.

Three new local exhibits reveal the breadth of this renewed interest. A group of local realists and one nationally known Kansan get their due in a pair of shows at Golden's Foothills Art Center, while over at the University of Denver, the works of German artist Heinrich Tessmer are on display.

The main portion of The Realist Mystique at Foothills is subtitled Colorado Contemporary Realists and features the work of ten well-known local painters. Foothills director Carol Dickinson could have easily put together a display made up entirely of purists (after all, as a national center for traditional art, Colorado has no shortage of homegrown traditionalists). Instead, she wisely attempted to sketch out a diverse range of realist approaches.

The show starts out in the small front gallery with three of its most traditional painters. Bill Napier of Denver, Scott Fraser of Longmont and Daniel Sprick of Glenwood Springs all rely on classic techniques and compositions, and all three are supremely proficient.

In the finest of Napier's pieces, an oil on canvas titled "Evening Sky," he has created a handsome mountain landscape. But there's one key difference between his view and the typical approach to such a painting: Napier has cut off the top of the mountain. Further proof of his contemporary approach to an otherwise traditional scene is the title, which is misleading, since the picture is mostly filled by rocky slopes with very little sky above.

Also straddling the traditional and the contemporary is Fraser. This nationally known painter takes super-realism--in which a subject's every wart and blemish is precisely recorded--and renders it almost surreal. In the oil on canvas "Target Practice," Fraser lines up three incredibly realistic lemons that have been speared by an equally accurately rendered arrow. He takes the same approach in the graphite-on-paper drawing "Life Cycle," in which two bird skeletons have been arranged on either side of a nest complete with eggs.

The back wall of Foothills' front gallery is completely covered by Sprick's "Inscrutable World," a large oil on canvas. Perhaps the most popular artist in the show, at least in terms of sales, Sprick produces enigmatic compositions that draw on the style of the Dutch and Flemish old masters. "Inscrutable World" thoroughly captures a sparsely furnished room occupied by a seated man, a standing woman, a rug, some plants, a telescope and an animal skeleton. Sprick's control of the paint is astounding--so much so that his technical prowess makes the piece a success despite its awkward composition.

Both Fraser and Sprick bring a strikingly lifelike feel to their paintings, but they're not photorealists. That point is clearly made in the small gallery beyond, in which three of Denver artist Robert Gratiot's paintings have been installed. Unlike Fraser and Sprick, Gratiot makes his paintings look exactly like photographs; that's why he's a full-blown photorealist and they are not.

In paintings such as "Grant Street Coffee Shop--Denver" and "The Lock-Doc, Chicago," Gratiot shows off his virtuoso skill at recording complicated scenes filled with mind-boggling levels of visual experience. In both paintings, interiors are glimpsed through glass windows that are covered with reflections. Capturing a multiplicity of reflected views is a thirty-year-old trick of the photorealists, but it retains its punch in Gratiot's work.

The main section of Colorado Contemporary Realists has been installed in the large central gallery at Foothills, and the paintings here reflect several distinct approaches to conveying recognizable imagery. It's because of them that the exhibit really takes off.

As viewers enter the oddly shaped space, they're met by a selection of pieces from Sushe Felix and Roberta Smith. Both of these artists look to the American scene painters of the early to mid-twentieth century for inspiration. But here, both are delving into what has come to be called "magic realism," a fantastic and lyrical style that isn't really realism at all.

That's especially true in the case of Felix. The Manitou Springs artist has turned toward abstraction in recent years, but at the time she created the paintings on display at Foothills, she was interested in placing figures from ancient myths into Western settings such as the Garden of the Gods. In "Fighting Centaurs," half-man, half-horse creatures are seen fighting to the death in a purple mountain setting. A similar scene is revealed in "Satyr," where the mythical beast can be spotted in a red-sandstone-and-brush landscape. Stylistically, Felix's paintings are expressionistic, with daubs and smears of paint used in lieu of rendered details.

Smith's three pastel-on-paper drawings are more conventionally composed and executed than Felix's. In "A Near Miss," which features a barn and silo seen below a looming thunderhead, Denver's Smith pays homage to 1930s artist Thomas Hart Benton. Like Benton, she uses a stilted perspective and bright colors for her cartoonish style.

Don Stinson of Denver takes a very different approach in his diptych "Living in the Shadow of the Big Screen/Past the Big Screen," whose title subject is an abandoned drive-in theater. This marvelous piece, a show-stopping oil and collage on board, features a flat prairie punctuated by a large movie screen.

Another standout among the realists is Boulder's Don Coen. Like Gratiot, Coen is a photorealist; in the painting "Jimmy's Sheep," it's hard to believe we're looking at a painting and not a photograph. The same is true of "Wyoming Moon," a scene of horses at night.

The large back gallery at Foothills is devoted to Dean Mitchell Paintings, which shows off the work of a Kansas resident who has built a national reputation with brushy realistic paintings done in an impressionist style. Mitchell is a consummate technician, and his work here reveals a remarkable level of skill. The tight lines of his watercolors bespeak a capacity for control rarely seen in the medium. His oil paintings are equally accomplished but take an alternate tack: Mitchell piles up the paint, at times quite abstractly.

This approach is easy to see in "Pairs," an oil-on-board still life that's mostly a color-field background, and in "Couple," another oil on board, in which two coffee cups appear in a sea of smeared blue paint. More than any other artist in Colorado Contemporary Realists, Mitchell is interested in creating truly traditional art. But there's no denying his skill, even if we might take issue with his conservatism.

In the case of Heinrich Tessmer: A Change in Hunting Grounds, now at the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery, a conservative approach is to be expected. After all, Tessmer was trained in the former East Germany, where modern art was strictly verboten. Tessmer, who still lives in Berlin, paints portraits and sporting pictures, but he does so in a gloppy expressionist style associated with early-twentieth-century German art. And come to think of it, his work is not unlike some of the things showing up at Foothills.

Among Tessmer's most interesting paintings are his grotesque self-portraits, which are rife with psychological content (check out "The Mirror," in which Tessmer's own face has been cropped into a roughly square shape and glows light against the dark background). But though he's occasionally entertaining, Tessmer seems a strange choice as the inaugural show for the recently remodeled DU gallery. After all, he is unknown in this country and has no association to DU or even to Denver. Gallery director Lawrence Argent explains that the show originally planned to open the refurbished gallery included selections from the collection of Gordon Rosenblum, a descendant of Rose and King Shwayder, the original benefactors of the building that houses the gallery. That exhibit was postponed when its original time slot was eaten up by construction delays; expect to see the Rosenblum collection resurface this fall when the Shwayder Art Building celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Given that the art world remains dominated by abstract paintings, it may be surprising to see realism's continual worldwide appeal for artists. But it's not such a shock when one considers that collectors tend to love it. Take a look at the high-as-the-sky price lists from the two Foothills shows and the Tessmer exhibit: Now, there's something that could really make an abstract artist green with envy.

The Realist Mystique, through March 15 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 279-3922.

Heinrich Tessmer: A Change in Hunting Grounds, through February 27 at the University of Denver gallery, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 871-2846.


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