Fall Colors

Painting is a very old-fashioned method of making art. After all, it's been around for at least 15,000 years (as proven by cave paintings). Astoundingly, over those years painting has changed very little, except in terms of style. Otherwise, it's done the way it's always been done: An artist applies pigment by hand to an essentially flat surface. What worked for the caveman works today.

Even contemporary art, a realm filled with much hipper mediums such as installation and conceptual art, is dominated by the quaint, geriatric form of painting. Why? Supply and demand, cynics would say. Collectors like to hang paintings on their walls, so artists oblige.

But painting's appeal goes much deeper than that. At times it comes to incorporate an artist's intellectual, philosophical and even spiritual pursuits while still reflecting a wide variety of cultural and social factors. So perhaps it's appropriate that this year's art pre-season be launched with an important exhibit dedicated to a thoroughly modern look at the prehistoric art of painting: Nine Painters + One, currently on display at the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus.

At first glance, the exhibit appears to be tightly organized around the theme of ten artists (the show's name is unnecessarily obtuse) interested in contemporary takes on representational imagery. But it's not. That all the artists included here are working in broadly related approaches was purely accidental, if happily so. What makes the cogency of Nine Painters + One so amazing is the fact that it wasn't really curated at all. "Each of the art departments at the three schools on campus--Metropolitan State College, the Community College of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver--were asked to select three artists," says gallery director Carol Keller. "Then I chose one--so nine plus one."

Make no mistake: This is not a faculty show, nor are the artists selected by the three schools affiliated with them. Metro chose Richard Baker, William Haney and Gillian Theobald. CCD picked Chuck Forsman, Sandra Kaplan and Clark Richert. UCD settled on Jim Colbert, John Fudge and Kristen Peterson. And finally, Keller added Cameron Jones. "All the others are well-established artists with long careers behind them," she explains. "I added Cameron late in the game because I felt there should be an emerging artist in the show."

Keller wisely decided to ignore the internal divisions of the show when arranging the hanging, choosing instead to follow an instinctual plan. "The only real input I had in the show was to limit the size and number of pieces included so the work would fit the space," Keller says. But the space itself is less than ideal: The exhibit fills the main room beautifully but overflows into the small upstairs loft. Keller has learned to deal with the layout but says she'd "love to see an addition off the back of the building to provide for another gallery. Exhibition space is scarce on campus, especially considering that we serve three separate institutions."

The first painting the viewer encounters in Emmanuel's main space is Boulder artist Kristen Peterson's "Summer's Center," a horizontal easel painting depicting an idealized and conventionalized view of an imaginary landscape. In this roughly symmetrical scene, a round pond in a green meadow in the mid-ground is glimpsed through a bower of leaves overhead in the foreground; in the back, a glowing white semi-circular gap in the dark gray clouds takes the center of the picture. The painting's surface is extremely smooth and seamless, but the dramatic lighting conjures up an ominous mood that offsets the simple sweetness of the leaves and the idyllic setting of the pond.

This painting, as well as Peterson's "East to West" (which is marooned upstairs), is brand-new and shows further development in her work. True, both have her signature dreaminess--the result of her use of rich, dark shadows against gleaming, luminous lighted passages--but they are more abstract than her previous paintings. In "East to West," there's even a shift in perspective. And how about those thick vertical lines?

Across from "Summer's Center" hangs another painting that's so new it's still wet. "Anatomy Lesson" is by Chuck Forsman, another Boulder painter with a national reputation and, like Peterson, one more concerned with landscapes of the mind than with actual scenery. "Anatomy Lesson," which features an unnamed Western mountainside, lays out Forsman's established artistic agenda: to create paintings based on the worst things humanity does to the earth. Although the profile of the hill and the heroic storm clouds above are not unlike those seen in traditional Manifest Destiny landscapes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Forsman focuses the viewer's attention on the strip mining that has scarred the mountain. Layers of the rock from which the mountain is made have been exposed, as though an autopsy has been performed for an anatomy lesson. And the devastation extends clear down to the viewer's feet, since Forsman includes a black, fallen dead tree at the right of the painting's curved bottom.

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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