Chuck Forsman goes solo at the DAM and Robischon

Although it gets plenty of attention for blockbusters like Modern Masters, the Denver Art Museum always has a raft of smaller shows on display as well. Right now there are nearly twenty, including Re Branded: Polish Posters for American Westerns; All That Glistens: A Century of Japanese Lacquer; and Fracture: Cubism & After. You'd have to be an athlete to cover the tens of thousands of square feet of exhibits there in a day.

One of these more intimate shows focuses on renowned Colorado artist Chuck Forsman, who made his name with paintings of the American West that carry an environmental message. But this show has only a few paintings, and instead focuses on photos. Seen in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman was organized by Eric Paddock, who zeroes in on two bodies of work: "Western Rider" and "Walking Magpie."

Paddock, a photographer himself, is also an expert in the history of photography, especially of the American West. In 2008, he was appointed curator of photography and media arts at the DAM after a 25-year stint at the Colorado Historical Society, now known as History Colorado. This was a smart move for the DAM, and equally smart for Paddock, who has been able to mount one great photo show after another there — something he couldn't have done at History Colorado. This show is his latest triumph.

Forsman has a complex relationship with photography. Some of his photos are studies for paintings, while others are works of art in and of themselves. A few play both roles at once. Paddock explains that Forsman does not directly copy imagery from his photos, but rather takes a detail from one, another from another, and so on, with many photos used to inspire a single painting. Despite this reliance on photography, it is important to note that Forsman doesn't embrace a photo-realist style in his paintings.

Forsman first garnered national attention in the 1970s for his paintings that deconstructed the landscape ideal of the great Romantic painters of the nineteenth century, like Albert Bierstadt. He did this by pointedly including human incursions — like quarries or road cuts — in the otherwise pristine views of nature. In this way, his work can be connected to that of Robert Adams, who also lived in Colorado then. Twenty years later, in the 1990s, Forsman realized that in the process of carrying on his career as a painter, he had also become an accomplished photographer, and he began to exhibit his photos alongside his paintings. And this is where the show at the DAM picks up the story.

The older of the two series included is "Western Rider," which dates from the mid-1990s and is very much like Forsman's paintings in that the views are often disturbing for their juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty. A unique feature of these photos is that they are taken through the windshield and windows of Forsman's car, which create odd and sometimes arching "frames" for the views. He has adapted this in some of his paintings by giving arching edges to the paintings themselves. In a work such as "Rock Creek subdivision...," the tacky houses under construction, set on the rolling prairie beneath an expansive sky, are cropped by a windshield wiper and a piece of a rearview mirror, both in the foreground.

The newer group, "Walking Magpie," was done in the early 2000s. Though many photos still include Forsman's signature dialectic between nature and the ongoing threat to it, some others are more lyrical, like the picturesque snow scene in "Overlooking Boulder..." Perhaps his friendly-looking dog, Magpie, with that goofy corkscrew tail, soothes Forsman's angst about the environment — at least a little. I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't also point out that some of the Magpie photos are set in cemeteries.

Forsman is also currently the subject of an impressive solo, Chuck Forsman: Markers, at Robischon Gallery. That show is anchored by his transgressive landscape paintings, but it includes many related photos, as well. Forsman's paintings often take in a gigantic sweep of a vista. In "Big Drop...," for instance, the view falls away and down, as the scene is set behind a dam — it looks like Boulder Dam to me — and at eye level in the background is a concrete bridge under construction, not quite meeting in the middle yet. In many of his paintings, Forsman places an element in the extreme foreground to contrast with the depth he conveys in the overall scene. Here it's a bird of prey perched on a ledge, with another coming in for a landing.

I mentioned that in the "Western Rider" photos, the curved margins of the views were the product of the pillars framing Forsman's car windows and windshield. Some of the paintings here pick up this characteristic, including "Noah's Arch," which has a partially curved top, and "Head Stone," which terminates at the top in a complete arch. The subject of "Head Stone" isn't a grave marker, but a boulder. However, it does invariably link back to the cemetery scenes from the "Walking Magpie" photos at the DAM.

There are three other shows at Robischon right now that pick up on the theme of the role of the landscape in contemporary art. The first is Elena Dorfman: Empire Falling, featuring digital montages based on images taken at abandoned and flooded quarries in the Midwest. Dorfman, who is based in L.A., has built her career on figure photography, with the "Empire Falling" series being her first works based on the landscape. These photo montages are often haunting, but not the one that features the graffiti-covered face of a stone quarry. Though it looks like a single shot, it was actually the result of scores of different photos, taken over the course of three days and then stitched together in Photoshop.

The next solo, David Sharpe: Waterthread, is the most poetic of the landscape quartet. Colorado's Sharpe is nationally known for his large-scale pinhole photos, including color prints like the ones in this show. His subject is Clear Creek, near his home in the foothills, which is seen close up. Given the crudeness of the pinhole process, everything is thrown out of focus — as in an impressionist painting. It really works. An extra-contemporary feel is the result of the high-tech character of the prints themselves, compared with the low tech of the pinhole process.

The final show, in the screening room in the back, is Isabelle Hayeur: Flow, a projected video that includes bucolic scenes transitioning into shots of industry, smoke and trains. Hayeur, who lives and works in Canada, is known for her photography. The handsome compositions in this video are evidence of that talent.

Do yourself a favor and catch a double shot of Chuck Forsman in the next few weeks, and while you're at Robischon, catch the three related shows, too.

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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