Art Review

Art Review: High Water Marks for Shows at Robischon and Goodwin Galleries

Given the alternating pattern of drought and floods brought on by global climate change, water has become an ever more urgent topic — not just for scientists and farmers, but for artists as well. These environmental issues provide the context for a discussion of six solos at two of the city’s top galleries, Robischon and Goodwin Fine Art. Five of these shows look at the issue of water, while the sixth concerns nature more broadly.

The suite of shows at Robischon begins with Stephen Batura: Floodplain, and although this exhibit includes only five works, the experience is almost overwhelming. That’s mostly because of the title piece, “Floodplain,” a spectacular multi-panel casein-on-board painting that measures an astounding twelve by forty feet. An older work, “Floodplain” is based on Batura’s own photos of the Colorado River. The artist, who lives in Denver, has translated the river’s surface into an incalculable number of repeated brush marks meant to convey the look of flowing water.

Without the title, “Floodplain” would appear to be completely abstract. That’s also the case with “Idalia,” which is closely related but much smaller. Although I’ve followed Batura’s career for more than twenty years and have seen “Floodplain” before, it never occurred to me until now how Monet-esque both it and “Idalia” are. Batura’s approach — not unlike Monet’s later works — is to abstract the views of water surfaces by reducing their details to nothing more than staccato marks and dashes.

The Batura show also includes some of his signature pieces: landscapes set on the banks of the Platte River that are based on antique photos taken by Charles Lillybridge, an enthusiastic and prolific amateur photographer who lived in Denver at the turn of the century. Batura has taken the images from the Lillybridge shots and tweaked them, or in some cases combined them, to come up with the compositions of his paintings, which are carried out in a more or less traditional style.

A very different take on picture making has been employed in Sami Al Karim, an intimate show of the artist’s photo-based images of waterfalls. An Iraqi refugee who lives in Denver, Al Karim was a political prisoner at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam Hussein’s reign. During the night while in prison, he would use a wooden stick to scratch works of art into salt buildup that covered the prison’s concrete walls. But he was careful to erase them before morning lest the guards catch him.

It was during his incarceration that he began to imagine his “Dream” series, from which the images in this solo come. To make the pieces on display at Robischon, Al Karim laid photo-based images on top of one another and, using a computer, resolved them into singular, unified images. The results are atmospheric, with a vaguely shaped and ghostly vertical swath — the waterfall — running down the middle of each work. Laid on aluminum panels, they are very elegant.

Moving water is also a connecting theme for the altered photo enlargements that make up Elena Dorfman: Sublime L.A. River. We are all familiar with the Los Angeles River, thanks to Hollywood — which frequently uses it as a background setting for movies and TV shows — and because of its distinctive look (much of it is paved in concrete).

Dorfman, who lives in L.A., orchestrates various pictorial elements — from those concrete channels to bucolic stands of trees and bushes. Though these are Photoshopped, they’re so perfectly done that they pass for actual views of the river. Dorfman’s sense for color is also remarkable, with the shades toned up and gleaming — something that may be partly enhanced by her use of pigment prints on metallic papers.

A number of these works are quite majestic, with smart pairings of natural views and urban decay. Exemplifying this is the piece that includes a graffiti-covered railroad bridge that crosses the river, with a mountain range engulfed by clouds running through the background.

The last of this quartet of solos is Isabelle Hayeur: Solastalgia, which is made up of a single video projection; the title concerns the anxiety caused by climate change. Hayeur is an internationally known Canadian artist who focuses on the environment. The video combines images of ruined flooded-out interiors, including peeling paint and sludge, with ones of incoming sea water. When both kinds of images are montaged together, the effect is stunning.

The Robischon exhibits show that the topic of water is something that’s being widely embraced by contemporary artists, an observation bolstered by a tight little solo at Goodwin, Mindy Bray: Urban Idyll. There’s definitely an affinity between Bray’s approach and Batura’s; both artists abstract the look of reflected light on the surface of moving water.

Bray, who lives in Denver, is interested in designed and constructed waterways as opposed to natural ones, which links her efforts to Dorfman’s, as well. An example is the constructed rapids in Confluence Park, which are the subject of “Instream,” a multi-panel ink-on-paper painting. To make a work like this, or the other ink pieces, Bray begins with a photo she’s taken; she digitally alters it so that it becomes fractured, then projects the image onto paper and follows the outlines of the shapes, filling them in with ink.

In addition to her works on paper, Bray has created a set of wall paintings done in latex that are based on the shapes of sunlight and shadow on the surface of Cherry Creek. These wall works were created with the same projection method as the ones on paper, but here Bray added cut-resin sheets, the shapes of which are also based on the views of the creek. The resin panels overlap the painted passages and, because they are translucent, change color where they pass over the paint.

Although the last of these shows, Matt Christie: Germination, doesn’t have to do with water, it may still be tenuously grouped with the others because it’s made up of small enigmatic paintings concerning natural themes. Christie’s rendering style is charming; he uses a storybook-like approach with a surrealistic twist. But his subjects — including tree stumps, bare twigs and fallen pine needles — lend a creepy edge to his works, and his dark, moody colors enhance the feeling of unease that they convey.

Although the cold might be keeping us away from nature right now, winter is the perfect time to check out these exhibits and remember what it looks like.

Batura, Al Karim, Dorfman and Hayeur
Through December 31 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788,

Bray and Christie
Through January 23 at Goodwin Fine Art, 1255 Delaware Street, 303-573-1255,

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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