For the past eight years, Denver artist Stephen Batura has been doing works of art based on an archive of historic photos from the collection of what used to be called the Colorado Historical Society and is now known as History Colorado. Batura, who once worked at the Denver Public Library, came upon the photos through the digital files of the DPL's Western History Library, which link to HC's archives.
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The photographer was a man named Charles Lillybridge, who captured life in Denver a century ago — he died in the 1930s — with some 1,300 photos. Interestingly, despite this great volume of material, little if anything is known about Lillybridge's life or career. In fact, a dispute with Denver Water, which accused him of squatting in a shack on the South Platte River, is the only thing about him that's recorded, Batura says.
Batura doesn't see Lillybridge as being particularly accomplished in his craft, which is odd since the artist has been obsessed with the photographer's images for so long. Instead, Batura is interested in using Lillybridge's originals as ad hoc studies for his own paintings, watercolors and drawings. More than fifty of these make up the spectacular exhibit Stephen Batura — Borrowing Time at Robischon Gallery (1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, www.RobischonGallery.com).
The show is beautifully installed (a standard feature for Robischon), with groups of pieces arranged salon-style. Batura doesn't precisely replicate the photos, so his method could hardly be called photo-realist; instead, he employs a contemporary representational approach that's very painterly. His palettes are interesting, too, since they are either extremely limited in range or even monochromatic. He also alters or crops the Lillybridge compositions, in some sense "correcting" the compositions so that they are more pleasing and balanced. The photos don't depict heroic or picturesque scenes, but rather the everyday sights Lillybridge encountered, such as the working men with their horses (and the horseless carriage) seen in "colossus" (pictured), an oil on canvas that's filled with visual interest.
Batura's impressive Borrowing Time runs through October 31.