View Masters

Though it may seem as if the current exhibition season has just gotten under way--and it has--some of the fall openers have already closed. But there's still time to see three marvelous shows that are just entering their final days at two of the city's most notable galleries.

These three presentations have a lot in common, and in some sense, they parallel one another. In all three, the artists use detailed explorations of external reality to create credible contemporary works (as opposed to neo-traditional ones). This is not to say that the artists take the same stylistic route; instead, the shows lay out the wide variety of artistic responses to one of the national art scene's current problems: making representational art vital in the 1990s.

For Verisimilitude, at the upstart Ron Judish Fine Arts, director Ron Judish brought together three established local talents. In the gallery's three principal spaces, Judish pairs the meticulous paintings of old master Robert Gratiot with the accomplished drawings of David Mesple. Back in the conference-room gallery, there's a small selection of photos by Paul Schrsder.

Gratiot, who's been exhibiting his work for the past 25 years, is one of the city's foremost adherents to the ongoing tradition of photorealism, which emerged in the 1960s as a kind of post-pop art. Successful photorealist paintings have the detailed accuracy of a photograph, and Gratiot is not just proficient at creating this illusion; he's a shameless showoff about it.

Verisimilitude begins with a pair of Gratiot's painted meditations on the visual effects created by mirrored surfaces. Depicting reflections is surely a standby for photorealists, but Gratiot brings it to new heights in two closely related acrylic-on-canvas paintings--"Fancy Ornaments," from 1992, and "Ornaments #3," from 1996. In both paintings, Gratiot creates a close-up glimpse of piles of Christmas decorations. The decorations, which are all essentially the same, fill the composition. The repeated use of the same form allows these paintings (and many others by Gratiot here) to function simultaneously as highly detailed representational paintings and as lively abstract ones.

Gratiot's representational paintings really ape abstracts when he depicts things that appear abstract in reality, such as the twists and folds of a clear plastic bag. In "Marble in Baggies #1," an acrylic on canvas from 1996 that is part of a large series of related works, Gratiot paints a bag of glass marbles. Because the marbles are in a transparent bag, some have been rendered as highly visible whereas others are obscured by the plastic. A detail on the right side of the painting, where the plastic is gathered up, appears to be thoroughly abstract until the viewer steps back to see it in the context of the rest of the painting.

Before Gratiot's attempts to join photorealism with abstraction by using an all-over arrangement of forms, he typically captured streetscapes. "Candy Cane, Red and White Stripes," a 1990 acrylic on canvas, is one of the first of the pseudo-abstract paintings that launched Gratiot in this then-new direction.

Hung opposite Gratiot's paintings are mammoth pencil drawings on gessoed canvas by David Mesple. Like Gratiot, Mesple is interested in conveying a fanatical attention to detail, but no one would mistake these drawings for photographs.

In the four drawings here, Mesple takes conventional formal arrangements that capture the human figure in natural settings. This may sound traditional, but Mesple's unlikely pencil-on-canvas technique and the use of heroic size give his Verisimilitude drawings a decided edge--as does the erotic character of a couple of them.

This sexual content is immediately obvious in "Incandescent Visions of a Dark Earth," in which a muscular and lithe young man, stripped to the waist, stands in a contraposto pose with his head cocked to one side. A female figure crouches at his feet. The young couple is mesmerized by a pool of light in the ground into which the woman is pointing. Behind them, shafts of light rise into the dark and murky sky. The power of this piece lies not in its enigmatic narrative but in the tremendous technical feat represented by such a large and thoroughly carried-out drawing.

The same goes for all of the other Mesples in the show, which are remarkable in many ways. A striking feature of Mesple's work is the shiny, luminous silver and white palette that results from the use of the gray graphite of the pencil on the scabrous face of the off-white gessoed canvas. In some places, Mesple uses unadorned gesso to stand in for the picture's highlights; in others, the pencil is applied in heavy black to convey shadow and depth.

Verisimilitude winds up with a group of small photographs from Schrsder's "Voyage Diary" series. These photos are a few years old, but they're of the kind he's been exhibiting for more than a decade. Using lighting, settings, props and costumes, Schrsder creates disturbing tableaux that creepily recall the Victorian era. Looking like a combination of horror and erotica is "Voyage Diary #12," a pair of 1994 silver-gelatin fiber prints joined with machine stitching. Both prints take up the topic of a corpulent woman who is dancing in a dramatically lit setting of an ambiguous nature. She's confrontational and threatening--two things that are enhanced by her elaborate headdress, which hides her face.

Nearly twenty years ago, the controversial Schrsder was one of the founders of the influential Pirate co-op, the flagship space of Denver's alternative art world. He left that group soon after it started, only to return briefly a few years ago; today Schrsder is a key player in the Denver Salon, a collective of fine-art photographers organized by Mark Sink.

Farther up Wazee street is that perennial favorite, the Robischon Gallery, which is hosting both Evanescence and On the Occasion of Dreams. Evanescence pairs Kansas City star Robert Stackhouse with Empire-based talent Don Stinson. Stackhouse is given the gallery's double-sized front space, while Stinson occupies the two spaces behind, an arrangement that allows each artist's work to be seen alone and in depth.

Stackhouse has gained a national reputation as a watercolorist and as an installation artist. In the pieces selected by gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran, both of these interests are reflected even in the absence of any installation pieces. That's because some of the watercolors on display are elements from installations, while others are conceptual sketches of the installations themselves.

Among the paintings from installations is "The Last Snake," which is hands down the strongest painting in Stackhouse's half of the show. The piece is a 1998 watercolor on paper applied to canvas. The large square painting, which dominates the front of the gallery, is made up of four joined panels. Spiraling out of the center is a large red snake enveloped by a variegated black ground.

The second type of Stackhouse, the concept image, is represented by another important watercolor, the subtly hued "K.C. Way" of 1996. The painting looks like an architectural rendering that reveals the curving skeletal walls of the installation "K.C. Way," which was a temporary, site-specific piece erected at the Kansas City Art Institute. Stackhouse's three-dimensional work is most often temporary, so even though "K.C. Way" is long gone, the watercolor remains a permanent marker of the installation.

Stackhouse's watercolors and installations are concerned with mysticism; his personal iconography includes serpents, wings, boats and architecture--all of which are evocative in their own ways.

The Stinson paintings are more down to earth--in fact, they depict the earth itself. Stinson's wide-angle landscapes are set in the West, and his format is exaggeratedly horizontal, reflecting the character of the outdoors. His signature is to juxtapose the majesty of nature with the detritus of humanity. A while ago Stinson painted picturesque mountain scenes with garish trailers in the foreground; for the last few years he's captured abandoned drive-in movie theaters. The artist imparts to these scenes a sense of loss and melancholy, but they're not angry, like the older trailer paintings. In these newer paintings, Stinson reveals his love not just for the mountains, but also for the solitary movie screen he uses as his dominant pictorial element. A good example is an elegant and monumental 1998 diptych, "The Necessity for Ruins," which is painted in oil on a pair of panels that have been hung with a wide separation. The left panel is horizontal, and in the foreground, the silver-and-white screen faces a field of golden prairie grasses that have grown over the parking lot. The top of the screen runs diagonally against the deep blue sky, where wispy clouds also float diagonally before fading away. Smaller and square, the other panel shows a view of the foothills in the background.

There is only one Stinson painting in the show that does not concern abandoned drive-ins. In "Crossing the Corridor," a 1998 oil on panel, the mark of civilization is instead the highway that fills the painting's foreground and mid-ground. At first glance this looks like a typical mountain landscape--there's even a peak in the center of the picture. But instead of an idyllic field in the foreground, tire tracks on the road's shoulder run all the way across the bottom of the painting. Under the mountain's peak, there's a tiny viaduct that in a traditional landscape might have been an interruption but here is downright charming.

In the recently created Viewing Room Gallery, beyond the main galleries, is the small but smart exhibit On the Occasion of Dreams, which features an array of large paintings by an old reliable, Berthoud's Wes Hempel. Among Hempel's familiar surrealist images of floating buildings is a recent and unusual one. In "Cloud Hospital," an oil on canvas done earlier this year, the expected landscape background has been replaced with an expanse of storm-tossed ocean.

Other paintings reflect Hempel's growing interest in painting the human figure while referring to the history of art. In another recent oil on canvas, 1998's "Practice," a luminous young man in contemporary garb stands before a dark sea with breakers in the background that looks as if it came out of the nineteenth century. The man, wearing jeans but with his shirt off, looks down at his hands in wonder. Hempel has based the figure of this painting, and others of its type, on photographs he has taken of the denizens of weight rooms. Like the Greeks and the old masters, his figures display idealized physiques meant to create a timeless quality even while his models sport current haircuts and attire.

There are many lessons to be learned from the offerings at Ron Judish Fine Arts and the Robischon Gallery. How thoughtful that with these shows, Judish and Robischon add not only to our visual edification but perhaps to our vocabularies as well. Surely some of us will be scrambling for dictionaries to find out that "verisimilitude" means to be "true or real," while "evanescence" refers to "transience." But it appears the artists, who take various approaches in conveying recognizable subjects, already understand the concepts.

Verisimilitude, through October 17 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5556. Evanescence and On the Occasion of Dreams, through October 17 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788.


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