In the second half of the nineteenth century, painters and photographers came to the American West to depict the majestic scenery. Amazingly, the landscape tradition is still relevant a century and a half later. For proof, see Don Stinson: What Lies Between, a solo now on view at the David B. Smith Gallery.
Don Stinson’s paintings highlight the Western landscape, but the artist has added conceptual content by including commercial intrusions in his otherwise inspiring natural vistas. The infelicitous elements include tumble-down buildings and rusting signs, and they transform the works from straightforward depictions of nature — which they mostly are — to commentaries on our society’s economic foibles and follies at the expense of the natural environment. However, these incursions into the wilderness are themselves old and somewhat charming, rendered lovingly by Stinson. This tames their deleterious effects, and actually makes even the ugliest seem sort of appealing.
Stinson’s taste for juxtaposing breathtaking views with tawdry roadside attractions links his work to the “new topography” movement. Colorado was one of the key places where that sensibility developed a generation ago; think Robert Adams or Chuck Forsman. The new topographic artists were interested in recording the Western landscape in non-romantic and non-heroic ways — a major break from the traditional approach — and Stinson is an heir to this rich aesthetic legacy.
Among the great paintings here are two companion pieces, “EAT: Eat/Death Highway 395” and “EAT: Eat/Taxes Highway 395.” Both are panoramic views of the desert dominated by cloudy skies; taken from opposing vantage points, they reveal two sides of a shabby, long-disused sign that reads “EAT.” The sign is only a tiny detail, but despite its minor pictorial role, its presence determines the nature of the views in both paintings, elevating them beyond ordinary renderings of landscapes. Stinson not only includes eyesores in the midst of picturesque scenery, but outdoor artworks and dramatic architecture, as well. In “Cadillac Ranch,” for example, the Ant Farm’s famous installation of partly buried Cadillacs lined up with their rear fins rising from the earth have been rendered so that the graffiti-covered cars run across the bottom third of the painting, with a stormy sky filling — and dominating — the rest of the composition.
Stinson, who lives in Evergreen, clearly uses photographs as initial studies for these paintings, yet they are not photo-realist in style. Instead, he embraces a painterly approach that harks back to classic realism, which is why his work plays in both the traditionalist and contemporary camps. In fact, he’s considered one of the most significant contemporary realists active today — not just in Colorado, but throughout the West. About ten years ago, Stinson attended a panel discussing the nature of the contemporary depiction of the landscape, and he made an observation that I will never forget: that the mountains, plains and deserts of the Western states should be considered “celebrity landscapes” recognizable around the world. This revelatory consideration sets his work apart.
At first glance, you might think the mixed-media drawings in Lanny DeVuono/Terraforming at Goodwin Fine Art are also depictions of celebrity Western landscapes, but they’re actually invented scenes from extraterrestrial planets. Her taking-off point is the idea of “terraforming,” engineering changes to a planet to make it more earth-like so that humans could live on it; the term originated in sci-fi but is now used in real science. For Denver artist Lanny DeVuono, terraforming refers to hypothetical vistas on distant planets that she imagines would appear much like those on Earth, and many of these views recall the look of the deserts and mountains of the Southwest.
The landscape as we usually encounter it is horizontal, and that’s why the typical approach of landscape artists is to convey it via horizontal panels. But DeVuono makes a radical break from this convention by using not just vertical panels in many of the pieces here, but attenuated vertical panels. The vertical orientation makes it seem as though we’re looking at the strange, if vaguely familiar, scenes through a slit in a fence. Some of the drawings, such as “Terraforming no. 4,” focus on a singular object (in this case, an asteroid), but in others like “Terraforming no. 8,” the depiction is a sweeping aerial in which miles of land unfold in the distance. Though the vertical drawings dominate the show, DeVuono has also done some that are essentially square, notably the two panels of “Terraforming no. 1.” The left panel depicts an asteroid, the right a roiling sea. With the exception of this piece, the other square works are tiny, measuring less than a foot in any direction. Even so, they are as tightly detailed as the larger drawings.
DeVuono’s style is characterized by her meticulous and delicate drafting, as well as by the extremely quiet palette that she embraces. Many of the drawings are dominated by neutral shades tending toward gray tones, though there are some browns, too. Several also include color fields, a few in icy blues and a couple in toned-down yellows and oranges. Like Stinson, DeVuono comes out of the realist tradition while adding a conceptual angle to her work via unconventional subject matter.
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Goodwin has paired the DeVuono show with Linda Connor/Gravity, made up of photos by California-based Linda Connor, whose subjects fall into three categories: sacred sites around the world, a fossilized sea bed, and the night sky through a telescope. Unlike the hand-done DeVuonos, not only are these pieces mechanically made, but they take a different approach to landscapes. Connor has built her long career on the archaic black-and-white contact-print process. For this new body of work, though, she’s gone futuristic: digitizing and enlarging her contact sheets, then printing them in a dye-sublimation process on metal sheets. The resulting photos have an iridescent quality, especially as a viewer moves by them.
While much of the contemporary art world focuses on the latest trends, artists such as Stinson, DeVuono and Connor are expanding our horizons, creating something new from an old, reliable source: the landscape.
Don Stinson, through June 3, David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 A Wazee Street, 303-893-4234, davidbsmithgallery.com.
Lanny DeVuono and Linda Connor, through June 3, Goodwin Fine Art, 1255 Delaware Street, 303-573-1255, goodwinfineart.com.