Over the past few decades, the contemporary-art world has gotten so vast that no single approach can characterize our era in the way that abstract expressionism represents the '50s or pop art evokes the '60s. Now, just about anything goes, as long as it isn't of the Bob Ross/ Thomas Kinkade stripe. On one pole is conceptual art, like narrative and non-narrative DVDs and videos, and on the other end is contemporary realism, which is the heir to a tradition dating back to cave paintings.
In a way, I was confronted by this radical juxtaposition of extremes when I was in the Robischon Gallery a few days ago. As I was taking in Karen Kitchel's excellent series of realist paintings in her current solo, Karen Kitchel: East Meets West, an electrical technician came in to scope out the future installation of a video projector and screen to be placed in the front window so that images can be shown on the outside when the gallery is closed.
It'll be neat, I'm sure, but the idea of an indoor/outdoor video screen strikes me as a commercial no-go, so I hope the gallery got some kind of financial help to do it. Plus, I'm unclear as to why gallery director Jim Robischon, who claims credit for the idea, would want to attract the attention of LoDo club-crawlers. Then again, the lighted screen may have the bonus of encouraging those who are given to public urination the urge to move to a darker spot down the block -- and for that benefit alone, any expense is justifiable.
Though technically speaking there's nothing conceptual in the individual Kitchel paintings, taken together they do have a conceptual component. The paintings describe, in an almost scientific way, the natural environment of Promontory Pass, Utah. This obscure and mostly uninhabited place became famous when, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven into the connecting point between the train tracks being built from the east by Union Pacific and from the west by Central Pacific. The golden spike symbolized the creation of the first American transcontinental railroad.
Kitchel has used the railroad as a conceptual link for her realist paintings before. A couple of seasons ago, she showed Train Track Walk, also at Robischon, in which the viewer was able to metaphorically travel through the four seasons by way of 96 small panels illustrating the life cycle of weeds growing along the tracks in the Platte Valley. The small paintings in East Meets West are a direct outgrowth of this earlier work, which was recently acquired in its entirety by the U.S. State Department's Art in Embassies program.
Kitchel was born in Michigan in 1957 and received her bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College in 1979. She came West soon afterward, earning an MFA in painting in 1982 from Claremont Graduate University in California. She lived in Colorado in the late '90s, but about a year ago she returned to the West Coast, which is our loss, as East Meets West demonstrates.
The panels depicting the sweeping views are the anchor pieces in the show, especially considering the way the paintings were installed at Robischon. The pair of spaces that flank the front entrance boast two large horizontal landscapes, each of which is bracketed by a pair of related smaller ones. In the space to the right is "Dawn at Big Fill," and in the space to the left is "Facing East," both of which were done -- as was everything in the show -- in oil on thick birch boards.
Unlike most of the other landscapes in the exhibit, "Dawn at Big Fill" has the illusion of an immediate foreground and a receding, seemingly infinite background. Kitchel placed the foreground right against the picture plane and created the detailed illustration of grasses that are arrayed along the bottom. The contrast between the nearness of the grasses and the distance of the horizon is underscored by the fact that Kitchel used different painting styles to convey these two opposite aspects. The grasses have a near-photographic accuracy, but the unfolding landscape behind them has been simplified and abstracted. This is a rare example of a Kitchel that combines both styles, as most of the paintings in the show are either hyper-real or abstracted.
The extreme foreground device seen in "Dawn at Big Fill" directly plugs this painting into Kitchel's detailed paintings of plants, which are made up completely of foreground. A group of these, collectively titled "Promontory" and numbered one through eight, have been hung in a row adjacent to "Dawn at Big Fill," and they remind me a lot of the Train Track Walk paintings. On small squares of wood, Kitchel paints the grasses, weeds and wildflowers of the pass. The plants fill the panels to overflowing, suggesting that the scenes in them go on and on, at least in our mind's eyes. The compositions are invariably balanced through asymmetrical harmonies.
By using Promontory Pass as a unifying theme -- though, oddly, she doesn't refer to the historic event that happened there at all -- Kitchel succeeds in making East Meets West a fully contemporary art show, despite her use of old-timey realist techniques. Her imaginative combination of employing two opposing yet compatible painting styles doesn't hurt her contemporary-art credibility, either.
The Kitchel solo has been paired with the eponymous solo David Sharpe, which is installed in a side space midway back that's surrounded on three sides by East Meets West. This show features a half-dozen photos by David Sharpe, an established and well-respected fine-art photographer working in Denver. For years Sharpe has focused on doing unfocused shots of the landscape taken with homemade and primitive cameras. Photographers such as Sharpe don't have to work as hard to gain the contemporary status that representational painters like Kitchel do, because photos are clearly contemporary. In fact, photography forms the basis of many other current media, notably those videos that Robischon will soon be projecting on the window.
Sharpe was born in Syracuse, New York, and got his BA in art history at nearby Colgate University. In the early '80s, he did graduate work at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, but he earned his MFA in photography at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1984. He returned to Colorado that same year and has been exhibiting his photographs in various venues ever since. His work was formerly shown at the now-closed Ron Judish Fine Art as well as Spark Gallery, an artists' co-op of which he was a prominent member during the 1990s.
Sharpe uses pinhole cameras made out of oatmeal boxes, soda cans and other cylindrical things that are totally sealed against light save for one tiny pinhole. Instead of using film, Sharpe puts photographic paper in his ad hoc cameras. Like the glass-plate photographers of the late nineteenth century who traveled with developing labs, Sharpe has a specially outfitted pickup truck with a light-tight chamber made from an old, decommissioned refrigerator. There, he can change his photographic paper and download the exposed images into what he calls a "safebox." His developing process is also interesting -- and also homemade. Sharpe's darkroom is in a two-story detached garage behind his house. He has cut a hole in the second floor so that he can project his images onto photographic paper on the first floor. This method allows him to enlarge his pinhole originals to the heroically sized silver-gelatin prints on view at Robischon.
For this group of photos, Sharpe recorded three distinct Western locales: the eastern plains of Colorado; Utah's Great Salt Lake; and the coast of Mendocino, California. All the photos are closely interrelated -- both formally and by the gray-toned, grainy prints that are the calling card of the pinhole method. There's also the curvature of the horizon, an inevitable consequence of Sharpe's cylindrical cameras.
There's an iconic quality to many of the artist's compositions -- especially the images of the Colorado plains, as in "Eastern Plains Suite 2.10," and those of Robert Smithson's nearly lost earthwork, as in "Spiral Jetty," at the Great Salt Lake. In both photos, a strong central element predominates; in others, such as "Mendocino 1.1," there's an empty space in the middle, creating the look of Japanese watercolors with the blurry edges of the pinhole standing in for the expressive brushwork. The two Mendocino photos are only the tip of the iceberg for this series, with many others from the group currently being shown at the prestigious Linda Fairchild Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. But they are illustrated and discussed in a small, handsome catalogue that's available for purchase at Robischon.
In the past, Sharpe often has exhibited his photos unframed; it looked good but brought in a lot of conservation issues, such as the accumulation of dust and dirt over time, and the inevitability of crushed corners. For the show at Robischon, Sharpe has had them framed, and I think that's a smart move on his part.
Kitchel and Sharpe both prove how relentlessly interesting the Western landscape is to contemporary artists. Because Robischon keeps its sales private and does not use red dots to mark the pieces that are sold, I'll need to go out on a limb here and say that I think Kitchel's paintings and Sharpe's photos are also popular with collectors. And unlike those video projections that will someday fill Robischon's window, it's easy to imagine people buying them and hanging them in their homes and offices.
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