The Vision Thing

"Honeymoon," by Chuck Forsman, oil on Masonite.

The landscape and the natural environment have long preoccupied artists. In a contemporary context, though, artists can't simply record the scenery; they need to comment on it, transform it. Robischon Gallery is currently presenting a pair of solos featuring two Boulder artists whose reputations go way beyond the metro area and who are doing fresh takes on nature-based art. In the front space is Chuck Forsman's Common Ground, which comprises contemporary representational paintings, mostly of landscapes. In the center space is James Balog's Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, in which the artist's recent composite photos of trees get their Denver debut.

Forsman is a professor of art at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a gig he's held since 1971, when he first moved to our state with a freshly minted MFA from the University of California at Davis, then a hotbed of contemporary art. Over the decades, he's done paintings of the figure, but he's best known for his pithy, political landscapes showing Western scenery ravaged by roads, dams and other evidence of civilization.

Some of the paintings in Common Ground are of this sort, but others take up scenes in Vietnam. These oil-on-Masonite works don't refer specifically to the Vietnam War -- there are no scenes of destruction, for example -- but they are meant to generally bring up the topic. That's easiest to see in the one non-landscape in the show, "Vietnamerican," a split portrait in which one half of a young man's face is depicted as if he were a Vietnamese peasant, the other as if he were an American street kid. It's pretty weird.

More typical of Forsman is another of the Vietnam pieces, "Honeymoon," a two-panel painting with a quarry on one side and the ominous afternoon sky on the other. It's done very much in Forsman's traditional style, in which a painterly approach is used to render realistic scenes. Across from "Honeymoon" are two slightly older paintings hanging side by side, "Beast" and "American Standard." In "Beast," a buffalo is shown in the bottom left of the foreground, with scarred and terraced mountains receding into the background. The composition of "American Standard" is similar, with a coiffed French poodle depicted in a desert landscape.

Balog went around the country -- and to a great deal of trouble -- to create the remarkable images in Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest. The artist, who earned his MFA in Boulder and has been there ever since, has made a name for himself by merging wildlife photography with contemporary art. His work has appeared in books, catalogues and exhibitions across the country.

The Robischon show is made up of photos of some of the largest trees in the world, which Balog has taken over the last five years. The series of tree photos have been published in the book Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, from which the show takes its title. Balog has developed an elaborate, Fear Factor-worthy method to create his images: He takes straight-on shots of the tree from the top to the bottom while sitting in a contraption hung from another enormous tree nearby. Readers will not be surprised to learn that Balog is a daredevil mountain climber and uses the gear specially made for that sport to help in his photography. Using pulleys, he gradually lowers himself, stopping every few feet to take dozens of shots with a digital camera.

Back in his Boulder studio, Balog puts the images together like a jigsaw puzzle -- or a David Hockney-style photo-montage -- to form the full portrait of the individual trees. Because multiple shots are brought together, a horizontal striping is created by the repeated glimpses of the horizon and the other trees to the sides of the star tree. All of our favorite botanical mammoths are here, including a giant sequoia, called "Stagg," a western red cedar, the Nolan Creek cedar, and a live oak, named "Angel Oak."

Balog is an environmentalist, and he wants viewers to understand the value of these trees, so he's given each photo a descriptive caption, detailing, where necessary, the ravages suffered by a particular species of tree or the American forest in general.

It was savvy of Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran to put Forsman's paintings together with Balog's photos, as both artists use their aesthetic talents to make credibly contemporary works that also raise issues about the environment.

It was the political landscape and not the actual one that was exposed in the exhibit Conversations in Clay, which closed last weekend at the Lakewood Cultural Center. The show brought together three ceramic sculptors -- Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, Caroline Douglas and Gayla Lemke -- but what made it stand out was the Lakewood City government's removal of an element from Lemke's "Hope Stones" installation (Artbeat, March 3). City Manager Mike Rock -- it's delicious that a guy named Rock pulled the stone -- ordered the offending piece removed at the behest of three Lakewood City Council members: Tom Booher, Jackie Herbst and Ray Elliot.  

The piece in question is made up of ceramic stones with quotations impressed into them. The quotes come from a variety of historic and contemporary figures; the one that was censored was attributed to political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, who has a weekly show on HBO -- which, to my knowledge, is still available in Lakewood.

The New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship picked up the story, contacted Lemke, and got Mark Silverstein of the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union involved. After negotiations with city officials, Rock wrote a formal apology to Lemke and had the controversial Maher stone restored to the exhibit. True, Rock's apology was terse and perhaps not sincerely felt, but it was done, and that's good enough. The city folded on the issue because, it turns out, censoring a work in a publicly funded facility like the Lakewood Cultural Center is one of those open-and-shut cases of violating constitutional rights.

Though this is a seemingly happy ending to the story, appearances can be deceiving: There are rumors that gallery director Robin Anderson, who booked Conversations in Clay, may yet lose her job because of the whole thing. (In my innocence of the political process in Lakewood, I would have thought it would be Rock who'd be afraid of getting a pink slip, not Anderson.) "I feel so bad for Robin," Lemke says. "I never would have expected this. They're upset about an artwork promoting peace!"

If Lakewood were to fire Anderson, I think it would be incumbent on the entire art community to completely shun the Lakewood Cultural Center -- which wouldn't be that hard, since it's so far off the beaten path. But let's not jump the gun, because the clouds over the center may yet pass. For the time being, supporting the place is the best way to show support for Anderson, who's done a bang-up job with small facilities and an even smaller budget.

Shifting gears from art to architecture, I'd like to bring up the proposed Denver Justice Center, a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago. In May, voters will be asked to authorize a bond to construct a $300 million-plus jail and court expansion on the Civic Center. My main contention is that I don't believe it's possible to build a 1,500-bed jail on the Civic Center and make it an architecturally distinguished building. I think a jail makes for a lousy landmark, and a landmark is exactly what's required on the high-profile site, which is right next to the Denver Mint.

One of the things I pointed out in my piece was that James Mejia, head of the Justice Center Task Force, had previously presided over the destruction of Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park. I thought no one would think that the sorry backyard project that's there now was better than the lost Halprin masterpiece -- but apparently I was wrong.

In an airy puff piece in the Denver Post on March 15, staff writer Dana Coffield did a roundup of outdoor spaces downtown, including the new Skyline Park. Despite the fact that the accompanying photo depicted a fountain that's a remnant from the Halprin original, Coffield describes the old park as having been "grim." She advises her readers to "pretend you're picnicking en plein air in the Jardins des Tuileries of Paris." Add Fabio and some heaving breasts straining against a bodice, and you're halfway to a romance novel. (And shouldn't that be "in" Paris?)

The really funny thing about comparing the new Skyline to the Tuileries is that if you were prone to make such absurd comparisons, there's one sitting right under (or would that be over?) your nose: The Daniels and Fisher Tower. That building -- which is in Skyline! -- is a copy of the Campanile at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, as Coffield herself revealed in a piece on March 29. So I guess if she had it to do over again, she'd ask us to pretend that the buses on Arapahoe Street are vaporetti and the cars gondole. (Just kidding.)

Getting back to the Justice Center, I had thought that putting a jail on the Civic Center was the worst idea I'd heard in a long time, but leave it to those busy beavers in city government and at the Regional Transportation District to come up with an idea that's even worse: a train up Speer Boulevard to connect Cherry Creek and the Civic Center. Now, I realize there's a pressing need, what with that grueling eight- to ten-minute drive, but should we sacrifice Speer to do it? I think not. Furthermore, I'd suggest that everyone who worked on the plan be let go; it's clear that urban planning just isn't their thing.

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