How lucky Robin Rule must be.
No sooner had she moved her namesake gallery from the Siberia of an off-street spot at the Icehouse in Lodo to her new location at Broadway and 1st Avenue, across the street from the Mayan Theater than her new neighborhood was heralded in Denver's daily newspapers as the emerging hot center for hip retailing.
The area, known as the Baker neighborhood or Broadway Terrace--absolutely never the phonetically incorrect "SoBo"--is a rough commercial mix of diverse businesses ranging from Manos, the popular specialist in Mexican handicrafts, to the Crypt, a nationally known purveyor of S&M accoutrements.
But Rule knew that her gallery needed more than good publicity or an exotic locale to re-establish itself as a must-stop on the art-show circuit. She also needed to come up with a first show that would lure everyone on the scene into her new space. And luck isn't what has brought the crowds through the doors the last couple of weeks--it was the savvy choice to launch the gallery's new location with a drop-dead gorgeous show of recent oil paintings by Denver's quintessential abstract painter, Dale Chisman.
Chisman is without question one of the most important contemporary local artists, as well as one of the finest abstractionists, to have ever worked in our region--no small accomplishment since abstract art has a six-decades-long history here.
Born "right in the neighborhood in West Denver," where he still maintains his studio, Chisman attended the Denver public schools. In the late Fifties, while a student at North High School, he studied studio art, as did so many other Denver students, with the late Martha Epp. Epp is still remembered for her powerful Modernist work of the Fifties and Sixties. But Epp wasn't Chisman's only link to mid-century modern art in Colorado. In 1961 he attended a summer session with renowned printmaker Mary Chenoweth at Colorado College. The influence of Chenoweth, known for her bold colors and sleek geometry, remains with Chisman even today.
Like the work of Epp and Chenoweth, Chisman's art of the Sixties was what he calls "fairly figurative." But even those early pieces were executed with the loose, painterly brushwork more commonly associated with abstraction. For most of that decade, Chisman was studying art at the University of Colorado. The Boulder of the day was a vibrant regional art center, a gathering place not only for the famous artists who were frequent visitors to the town, but for a generation of young artists--Clark Richert and John DeAndrea among them--who would later become the Denver area's old masters.
Chisman also traveled during the Sixties, pursuing his studies at Yale and at London's Royal College of Art, an experience he says he hated. Fortunately for Chisman, he was able to escape the drudgery of an English art school by working as a studio assistant to David Hockney, with whom he had developed a close personal and professional relationship when the British pop artist taught in Boulder.
Chisman's experiences at Yale, where artist-teachers like Lester Johnson and Louis Finkelstein had a direct line from New Haven to the New York school, and his relationship with Hockney, who had his own pipeline to New York, led Chisman to decide to move permanently to the Big Apple in 1969. He found ready acceptance in New York, being picked up by the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery in 1972 and included in that gallery's widely acclaimed "New Images Show" the following year.
Chisman's paintings of the early Seventies were still somewhat figurative, but his style was increasingly moving toward abstraction. That meant swimming against the stream in New York, where recognizable subject matter had gained the high ground over abstraction in the battle for contemporary cachet. But Chisman clearly was comfortable playing the outsider. He felt he could express himself "better through pure form than through [objects] which already have inherent meanings," he says. And by the time he returned to Colorado in 1984, he had worked exclusively in abstraction for a decade.
It would not be an understatement to call Chisman's reappearance here a triumph. Though his highfalutin New York credentials were largely unknown locally, it was hard to miss the heroic scope and high concept that exuded from his works, which were first glimpsed by most local observers at Pirate in 1986. Chisman was immediately hailed as one of the city's great artists, and in the years since, he has only consolidated his position as an art star, producing a body of work that not only is consistent, but has followed a number of adventurous directions over the years.
This is not to say that Chisman's work is stylistically varied. His paintings are always concerned with abstract expressionism, today remembered as the flagship style of the New York school--and still flourishing even after many of its rivals have come and gone. But Chisman has never honored the inherent constraints of the style, always attempting, in his words, to "push it further."
And Chisman does push on, as the eight magnificent paintings that command Rule's main exhibition space demonstrate. These new works, supplemented by a few mixed-media-on-paper compositions, appear to be an outgrowth of the pieces that were exhibited last year in a group show at the University of Denver's Shwayder art center. In those paintings, linear elements were juxtaposed with organic shapes. In the more recent works at Rule, Chisman has integrated these two disparate approaches to formal composition. And like the paintings at DU, the ones at Rule often feature a dark blue color scheme, though in this case it's ultramarine instead of cobalt.
Among the paintings at Rule showcasing Chisman's signature blue is "Cardinal Points," an oil on linen. Blue and white shapes that combine organic and geometric forms are set hard on the painting's surface. Falling away behind these shapes is a creamy indefinite ground with smears of ochre. In this way, Chisman has set up the inherent tension of flatness versus depth, an issue the artist frequently grapples with. And the suggestion of forms at the painting's margins hints that the painting continues on beyond the stretcher-bars--at least in the artist's imagination.
Similar in approach is "Palabra," an oil on canvas. On the left side of the canvas is a heavy vertical blue line, while on the upper right Chisman has included two gestural shapes, likewise in blue, which are roughly triangular. The majority of the painting's surface is made up of a white field that reveals drawings that have been obscured by having been painted over in white. The title "Palabra" is Spanish for "word," in this case a reference to the hard-to-see letter Z, which has been rendered in white on white.
That tendency to paint out parts of his compositions is a typical feature of Chisman's paintings. This is the product of both Chisman's instinctual, automatist method and his interest in the mystical nature of painting; when an element is painted out, after all, the ghosts of the former elements remain on the surface. In "Remembrance," a magisterial oil-on-canvas diptych, Chisman has almost entirely painted over the large black linear forms with red. The generous use of blood red and funereal black and the title imply that "Remembrance" is dedicated to someone who's died.
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One of the strongest paintings in the show is the only one that doesn't feature the layering of different levels of paint. In "Solo a Dos Voces," a striking oil and wax on linen inspired by an Octavio Paz poem of the same name, there's only a single surface--mostly the bare linen itself. Predominated by the beige hue of the linen, it also includes black, brown and white--colors Chisman says are meant to evoke "darkness, sadness, the winter." Translating Paz's poetry into paint was, Chisman says, "a beautiful, magic thing that just happened."
It may seem to have been a safe choice for gallery director Rule to have selected Chisman for her first exhibit on Broadway. But let's not forget that the Denver Art Museum's recent unveiling of abtract expressionist works by Robert Motherwell upped the ante by making comparisons between the two shows inevitable. Chisman does not suffer from the comparison--and, in fact, it would have been an inspired move on DAM's part if Chisman's show, instead of being a mile away from the Motherwells, were a room away in the Close Range Gallery. You know: a pioneer of abstract expressionism paired with a current artist who continues the tradition. And after all, Close Range is available, being essentially empty now that the Edward Ruscha exhibit is in place.
But then again, I told you Robin Rule was lucky.