Abstract Concepts

Robin Rule, director of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, is on cloud nine, thanks to the nine abstract paintings that make up the gorgeous Dale Chisman: New Paintings exhibit that just opened at Rule. Not only is this show an aesthetic triumph for Chisman, the well-known contemporary master, but it's also been a smashing commercial success for the gallery, with a number of the paintings selling even before last Friday night's opening.

Of course, this is hardly a surprise. Chisman is one of the hottest contemporary painters in the region today and has been for pretty much the past decade. Born in Denver and raised in the west-side neighborhood where he now maintains his studio, Chisman is the rare local artist who has been successful in the art world without forsaking his roots--at least not permanently.

Nearly forty years ago, as a student at North High School, Chisman studied with the late Denver modernist Martha Epp. Just after graduating from North in 1961, he attended the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, where he worked with the great Mary Chenoweth. The influence of Chenoweth's sketchy, geometric style remains with Chisman to this day. Chisman next went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he received his BFA in 1965 and his MFA in 1969. Having completed his studies at Boulder, he left soon after for New York, where he found almost immediate success. Chisman remained in the Big Apple for more than fifteen years but chose to return to Denver in 1984. At that time, he was known in town to only a handful of his contemporaries in the art scene. That soon changed, however, and with his exhibits in the mid-'80s at Pirate, Chisman became lionized as one of the state's best artists.

The exhibit at Rule is Chisman's first solo painting show since the winter of 1995. But that doesn't mean he's been out of sight. In the years since his last show at Rule, he's been the subject of a one-man print show at 1/1 Gallery, and his works have been included in several prestigious group shows, including one at the Denver Art Museum and another at the inaugural exhibition for Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art.

The current Rule show begins with a small, quirky painting that can be seen through the gallery's large front windows even before the viewer enters. As revealed by its title, the oil on linen "Self Portrait After Miro" is meant as an homage to the late, great Spanish modernist, Joan Miro. Chisman's palette, dominated by ocher and black but including touches of red and blue, takes off from Miro's signature color scheme. And the gestural and organic lines Chisman employs also suggest the sensibility and abstract-surrealist style associated with Miro.

"Self Portrait" has an indefinite background that's been subtly marked with graphite doodles. On top of this, Chisman has used heavy black pigment to create a somewhat whimsical image of a person--essentially a circle with eyeballs. Chisman says he came up with the idea recently while in Barcelona, where he came across a 1940 Miro that featured similar shapes and forms. "Then, in 1960, Miro added this, done in the style he was working in at the time," Chisman adds, pointing to the black cartoonish figure in the center. "And I appropriated it."

The remaining eight paintings are displayed in the main gallery just beyond the entry. Chisman regards this group, along with two other works not seen in the Rule exhibit (one is touring in a show from Wyoming's Nicholaysen Museum; the other is so new it's too wet to move), as a series. But he cautions that "it's not a serious series, where all the paintings look alike, which they don't." In fact, the paintings seem to fall into three broad categories: the oldest, which are dark with archetypal shapes; a middle group, in which the paintings are light and linear; and the last group, whose works are dark and include both shapes and lines. What links this disparate collection, according to Chisman, is "a brighter color sense than before, with a simplification of the forms. There are a lot of new elements, yet they seem familiar to me." And he's right. These recent paintings are both daringly new and unmistakably Chisman.

The first painting Chisman completed in the series is "Seven Notes," a large oil on linen from 1997 that hangs by itself on the back wall. The five-foot square panel is mostly red; Chisman has used bright, vibrant tones toward the center and then darkened them with black at the edges, creating an ad hoc frame. Graphite has been used to draw sketchy passages against the red surface that vaguely suggest leaves, vessels and the human figure.

On the surface of "Seven Notes," Chisman has laid a big chartreuse smear and two dark-blue shapes in the forms of a double gourd and a teardrop. The effect, which marks a new direction for Chisman, is marvelous. The strongly colored shapes stand hard against the subtle, recessive ground, lending an awkward balance to the picture. It's an unlikely combination that shows up in several of the other pieces in this show.

The only other painting from 1997--all the rest were completed this year--is the oil on linen "Tattooed by Passion." Chisman's use of a stencil, which allows him to insert nearly identical shapes into different paintings, is apparent here. "I started using a stencil in printmaking--it's a printmaking technique--but with this series, I decided to use it in my paintings," he notes. A guitar shape and a series of squares in "Tattooed by Passion," for example, show up again in "Reflections," a 1998 oil on canvas that is otherwise markedly different.

Chisman's use of creamy colors like white and golden ocher in "Reflections" anticipates the light color schemes of the next several paintings. "White Words" is a transitional painting that links the first pieces in the series to the last. The hook is Chisman's use of the teardrop shape that appears in "Seven Notes" and again in "Game Without Rules," a heavily painted oil on linen from 1998. "White Words" also presages some of the more recent paintings in the series through its creamy white and gray palette and its use of an arching line that dominates the composition.

The oil-on-linen paintings "Stillness in Motion" and "Danzon" stand out from all the rest, with elongated dark shapes and dark squares set against a mostly white ground. Meanwhile, the final painting in the series, "GYell," is another by-product of Chisman's trip to Barcelona. In fact, it was inspired by a visit to a famous city park in the Spanish metropolis that was designed and adorned by idiosyncratic architectural genius Antonio Gaudi. The painting doesn't make direct references to Gaudi's spectacular multi-colored monuments, but their presence is felt nonetheless. Chisman has created a brownish field that ranges from burnt ocher to sepia and has placed on top of it multi-colored squares and meandering lines. In the center is a roughly drawn vertical rectangle in brown that is partly obscured by dense black scribbles.

Asked to sum up his new series, Chisman says it was all about combining drawn elements with painted flourishes. Mission accomplished.

While the Chisman show occupies the main gallery at Rule, the back room, recently named the "west gallery," is host to a small show of large paintings by Boulder abstractionist Gene Matthews. With this exhibit, which makes a handsome pairing with the Chisman show, gallery director Rule has shown how even the smallest space--the west gallery is the size of a tiny bedroom--can be used to create an intimate and intelligent statement.

Matthews is represented by a handful of first-rate acrylic paintings covered with paper from the late 1970s that sport horizontal stripes meant to suggest the landscape. Matthews, who's shown for the last forty years in the area (though not much recently), is known as a supreme master of color. In these paintings, pastel colors--especially the seemingly infinite shades of pale icy-green that Matthews is able to achieve--are made even paler by a layer of rice paper that has been laid across their surfaces.

The paintings call to mind the fact that back in the 1960s and '70s, there was a veritable movement of local artists working with variants of hard-edged geometric painting. Other practitioners included George Woodman, (whose retrospective just closed in Boulder), Bev Rosen, Clark Richert, Charles DiJulio, Richard Kollweit and David Yust. It would make a great show to bring them all together--and though such an exhibit would seem tailor-made for the new MoCA or for the DAM, don't be surprised if Robin Rule is the one who ends up doing it. With exhibits like Dale Chisman and Gene Matthews, she's already made her small gallery the rival of these much larger public institutions.

Dale Chisman: New Paintings and Gene Matthews, through June 27 at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia