Changing Scenes

The reputations of Pirate and Spark have been rehabilitated in recent years owing to the hard work of their members. Both of these co-op galleries are often the place to find intelligent art shows by accomplished local artists. Surely that's the case right now with exhibits from versatile painter Stephen Batura and neo-pop proponent Annalee Schorr.

Batura's much-talked-about Vitti show at Pirate is one of those rare exhibits in which viewers can literally see an artist's stylistic development. The paintings in the show record a recent sea change in Batura's artistic direction.

Batura's first claim to local fame was a group of vaguely vegetal, vaguely geometric abstract paintings on shaped insulation board that he produced in the late 1980s. Two of these paintings were included in the important and still influential Colorado 1990 show at the Denver Art Museum. But Batura is surely better known for his still-life paintings of kitsch figurines rendered in monochrome, a series he launched in 1992 and has widely exhibited ever since. The paintings revealed an almost photographic attention to detail, which is the product of Batura's meticulous draftsmanship. They earned Batura a 1996 Co-Vision Award from the Colorado Council on the Arts. But as his Pirate show makes clear, the figurine series is a closed chapter in his career.

In Vitti, Batura has moved from figurines to historical clothing, most of it dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like figurines, clothing refers to the human form; Batura says he turned to clothing because he decided the figurines "were inadequate stand-ins for the figure." Using texts on the history of fashion for inspiration, the artist sought out illustrations of clothing draped on stands instead of worn by live models.

The earliest of the paintings here, "Master of fact," a casein on board of an eighteenth-century men's suit complete with waistcoat, vest and britches, has been executed by Batura in a blue monochrome. "Master of fact" isn't too different from Batura's familiar figurine paintings. But it's not just the artist's change of subject that makes this painting distinctly different from his past work. Batura displays the painting upside down--and he painted it that way, too.

Taking a page from the book of German artist George Baselitz--the originator of the upside-down device--wasn't what Batura was after. And he apparently worked through the phase very quickly. That's good, because the upside-down paintings are essentially failed experiments--so annoying I was tempted to rehang them right side up. But there's no shame in this for Batura--it merely demonstrates his artistic courage. Pirate is all about providing a place where artists can experiment--and what would experimentation be without a couple of overflowing test tubes?

"Master of fact" is one of seven paintings that have been arranged in an asymmetrical composition across Pirate's huge south wall. The paintings glow against the wall, which has been painted a deep, dark and luxurious blue. The dark paint job completely changes the character of Pirate's front gallery, and despite the fact that Batura has turned on every available spotlight, the room is very dark--quite uncharacteristic of Pirate. As a result, the seven works, though clearly distinguishable, appear as one.

By far the best paintings in the show are two of the last to be completed, "Cascade" and "Taper." "Cascade," a purple monochrome of a nineteenth-century woman's satin ball gown, is obviously a breakthrough painting for Batura--and not only because he's halfway back from the inverted world of "Master of fact" ("Cascade" being merely sideways). The profile of the gown has been altered, as is revealed by the obvious "seam" across the top of the image. "Cascade" also demonstrates Batura's skill at conveying luminosity--the dark-purple satin gown seems to have its own inner glow.

As wonderful as "Cascade" is, "Taper"--finally, a painting that is right side up--is even better. It depicts a detail of a gown adorned with floral decorations. The gown fragment has been painted in black and sepia set against a glowing gold color field, and the field has been vigorously and expressionistically painted.

Batura is one of a corps of mostly younger artists--his wife, Cameron Jones, is another--who have, with shows like Vitti, revitalized Pirate. Once again, Pirate is one of the most important exhibition venues in the city--just as it was in the 1980s. And there's no secret to its success. The artists simply pull out all the stops when they get the chance to control Pirate's tremendous gallery up front, even if it is only for three weeks. And going all out is what Batura has done in Vitti.

Annalee Schorr's Insomnia exhibit at Spark, as the show's title indicates, is a very personal collection of work. Schorr, one of the region's pre-eminent neo-pop artists, suffers from insomnia. And while lying awake at 3 a.m., she was able to map out the Insomnia show.

As she has since the Gulf War in 1991, Schorr uses television as her principal metaphor. She photographs images off the TV screen, enlarges the resulting photos, photocopies the photos and then sometimes hand-alters the photocopied photos, either with tinting or by cutting up the images. The work now displayed at Spark is the product of these elaborate mechanical and impersonal techniques, which Schorr brings together to explicate her highly personal and private struggle to get some sleep.

When it comes to expressing thoughts on sleeplessness, television seems like the perfect vehicle. Who doesn't flip on the tube when they're up in the middle of the night? It's somehow a comfort--and as Schorr points out, insomnia can be creepy and ominous, just like "Dr. Death," a photocopy enlargement of Dr. Kevorkian's talking head set against a giant pair of scissors. Schorr says that though she feels Kevorkian has sparked a valuable debate, she's personally wary of the former pathologist, whose first living patients were those he helped to kill.

"Timothy," a black-and-white triptych, is made up of photocopy montages that set two heavily altered portraits of Timothy McVeigh against an enlargement of the rubble of Oklahoma City's destroyed federal building. In the two panels that picture McVeigh, parts of his face have been blacked out through Schorr's use of negative panels in some places. The relationship of the negative to the positive panels creates a geometric pattern.

The brightly colored "Palettes" also features the incorporation of a pattern. Here, artist's palettes, instead of the more expected television screens seen in other pieces, have been laid on a color photocopier. Schorr has arranged nine of these photocopies in a grid. (Patterns and grids, by the way, recall Schorr's pre-television pieces, when she was best known as an artist interested in geometric abstractions.)

The real standout in the show is the photo-enlargement montage "Reaching for My Father." Schorr uses two black-and-white portraits of her father along with color photographs of her own hands, fragments from his autopsy report and obituary, and a number of broken wristwatches--real ones, not photos. The old wristwatches, found in her father's junk drawer, are ably incorporated by Schorr into the piece, where they are used to create a decorative pattern across the bottom of the panel. "Reaching for My Father" isn't the first example of Schorr's incorporation of found objects into her mostly photo-generated pieces, but it's her most successful attempt yet.

Surely all but the most hard-hearted among us must sympathize with Schorr's struggle to get enough sleep. But if a show like Insomnia is the product of staying awake all night, maybe it's worth the trouble--at least for the rest of us.

Vitti, through July 14 at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 480-9822.

Insomnia, through July 14 at Spark Gallery, 1535 Platte Street, 455-4435.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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