Contemporary art with a Western edge fills Robischon

The American West as a topic first appeared on the stage of international consciousness in the late nineteenth century, when painters and photographers stumbled on the Rockies, the Sierras, the deserts, the forests, the canyons, the herds of buffalo and elk, the indigenous people and the new settlers.

Their images went around the world in book, magazine and newspaper illustrations and almost immediately established the West as a rich source for the popular imagination. This was followed by a boom in the publishing of novels, stories and accounts of the West, which led a century ago to the invention of Westerns as a kind of movie — with the most important center for filmmaking, Hollywood, itself being in the West.

But let's face it: During this early period of increased awareness, our region — even California — was viewed as a novelty act, and our art and culture was dismissed as being inferior to that of Europe or the East Coast. Then, a generation ago, scholars, curators, collectors and dealers began to take another look, and that interest has recently reached a critical mass. From my point of view, the trigger for this was a set of shows mounted last year in Los Angeles collectively known as Pacific Standard Time, which made the bold claim that far from being second-rate to New York culture, the scene in Southern California in the second half of the twentieth century was its equal.

Denver's institutions have been in on the act as well. Take West of Center, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which looked at the hippie invasion of the West in the 1960s and '70s; the Kirkland Museum's Colorado Abstract Expressionism; Ed Ruscha: On the Road, which just closed at the Denver Art Museum, and many other exhibits meant to recast the West as a cutting-edge place, one that is — and has been — at the forefront of American culture. 

Given this change in attitude, it's doubly sad that the powers-that-be at the History Colorado Center, which I wrote about two weeks ago, were clearly unaware it was happening as they prepared the new museum. Had they kept their ears to the ground, they would have sensed the approaching stampede of interest. Instead, they were obsessed with charts, graphs and focus groups. So rather than insert the History Colorado Center at the forefront of this new view of the West, they chose to make the state seem like Anywhere, USA. This is what I would call a high-grade error.

The same can't be said for husband-and-wife team Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran, who are always in on what's happening — in this case, contemporary art with a Western edge. Their venue, Robischon Gallery, has long been one of most important commercial galleries in town. In fact, owing to its large size and the high quality of its offerings, Robischon could easily be mistaken for a small museum — you know, the way the History Colorado Center could be mistaken for a Dave & Buster's.

Currently, there is a major set of shows at Robischon collectively titled Appropriated: The Chronicled West; each of the four features interacts with the others in a way that creates a unified whole. The shared subject of the artists is the reinvention and deconstruction of Western icons in paintings and photos.

See images from Appropriated: The Chronicled West

The first is Stephen Batura, made up of a dozen paintings in the series of spaces running from the front of the gallery to the back. The selection on display combines examples of Batura's classic trainwreck paintings with his works based on the photos of Charles Lillybridge. In both cases, Batura used historic photos in the History Colorado collection as his preliminary studies. He then reinterpreted the photos in casein and acrylic paint, with many of the resulting paintings coming out as enormous mural-sized works.

In the translation from historic photo to contemporary painting, Batura changes the compositions and corrects them using his imagination. After all, the photos he's employing weren't created as fine art, but as snapshots or photojournalism samples, so balance and form weren't a top priority. A good example is the majestic "Spring Morning," in which a trainwreck is seen from above. The shattered and scattered boxcars create a zigzag vertical element up the middle of the composition; that's juxtaposed with the distant mountains, which make a strong horizontal statement. Most Batura paintings have a muted palette, and for this one he used toned-down greens, grays and blues. The trainwreck paintings and Lillybridge works are mostly a few years old, but there are some newer ones that indicate a big change in the artist's style, including "Hinterland," which is extremely abstracted and has minimized details.

While these Baturas bring the past up to the present, the photos that make up Edie Winograde look at the present and the way it refers to the past. But both look at the West. For this series, Winograde has sought out re-creations of historic events staged throughout the West and, using high-powered cameras and low shutter speeds, captures the sweep of movement that characterizes these theatrical presentations. Winograde interprets the interpretations of the re-creators and thus arrives far from the original tales on which these events are based. Plus there's the conflation of past and present, with the actors in the re-creations dressed in historic garb but clearly of our own time; some of the photos include glimpses of pickup trucks and electric wires.

Winograde presents a series of pigment prints on related themes. Many are done in an exaggerated horizontal format, giving them a cinematic quality that is enhanced by the clouds of dust and blurred images that suggest movement. The ways in which our perceptions of our Western history change is highlighted in the different takes on General Custer and his last stand at Little Big Horn. Putting all this intellectual content aside, there's something very visually engaging about these photos, which look like heroic Western paintings from a century ago and at the same time appear to be thoroughly up to date.

In a niche space toward the back is Jerry Kunkel, which showcases five photo-realist trompe l'oeil paintings that take a retro-kitsch approach to the history of Western landscape painting; they single out Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Thomas Hill for both homage and ribbing. These paintings reminded me of scenic placemats in a pancake house with their image of the mountains in the center and text above or below. Kunkel does a convincing copy of the classic artist's work and surrounds it with other visual information, including words. In "Love Letter, Thomas Hill," Kunkel situates the copy of the Hill painting roughly in the center of the squarish canvas. He's envisioned it as though it were taped to a plywood shipping crate, and I had to do a double take to discern that the tape and plywood weren't real and were instead fanatically accurate painted depictions of them. Especially smart — and funny — is Kunkel's inclusion of a painted version of a rubber stamp that reads "Approved."

Looking to our past in order to come up with something relevant to the present is also the theme of Gary Emrich. In the space in the back beyond the Kunkels, there's an Emrich video and some of his very cool color photos based on degraded renditions of Western iconography. In these digital montages, Emrich combines portraits of cheesy novelty decanters depicting stereotypical versions of Western characters — the Sheriff, the Cavalry Scout, the Cowboy — and superimposes them over backdrops composed of bottled-water labels with mountain scenery on them. But the appropriateness of the scenic imagery from the water-bottle labels is only one reason they work so well behind the Western characters. Another is the issue of the water shortage in the West, surely one of the biggest problems for our region, and something the labels subtly suggest. These photos come from Emrich's "Firewater" series and are among the best things he's ever done.

For those of you who are like me and are keenly interested in what's happening now in the region where we live, Appropriated: The Chronicled West, with star turns by Batura, Winograde, Kunkel and Emrich, is absolutely a must-see before it all comes down in just a few days — if only because everything on view is more evidence of that Western wind that's starting to sweep the country.

See images from Appropriated: The Chronicled West

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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