High Notes

Dale Chisman has long been known as an artist's artist. For proof, look to the fact that several well-known local artists are among the collectors who've snapped up Chisman originals from his new show at 1/1 Gallery.

Chisman is principally known for his paintings, but for more than three decades, he has also forged a reputation as a printmaker. In the triumphant display at 1/1, Dale Chisman: Jazz, his first solo effort since 1995, Chisman is represented by some twenty prints, most of them monotypes.

The Jazz show stands out in a crowded field of quality exhibits this winter season. And perhaps in part due to its clever theme--the pieces are named after America's great jazz musicians--it's also a runaway commercial success. Nearly half the works on display have already been sold, says gallery director Bill Havu. "It's been hard to keep the show together until it closes," he adds. "Collectors want to take their pieces home now."

The pieces in the exhibit were commissioned by Havu, who clearly guessed correctly about the public demand for Chisman's work. To fill the order, Chisman worked, as he has so often in the past, at Denver's Open Press printing studio. Teaming with Open Press master printer Mark Lunning, he conducted two sessions, the first in June 1996, the second in December. During the first session, Chisman produced the small prints that make up the "Jazz" series. In the second round, he reworked several of the smaller "Jazz" prints and also created four larger pieces--made possible when Open Press acquired an oversized press with a printing bed measuring more than three feet by six feet.

Havu points out that the "Jazz" prints recall the high-concept album covers of the 1950s and '60s, in which modern art was an integral part of the graphic design. But Chisman says the jackets of those classic LPs weren't his inspiration. "When I completed the prints, they just felt like jazz," he says. "That's why I went to the names."

The "Jazz" title was also intended as a tip of the hat to twentieth-century modern master Henri Matisse, who created his own "Jazz Suite." A few years before Matisse died in 1954, he suffered a stroke that made it impossible for him to wield a brush. However, he did not give up making art, working from his hospital bed to create collages of cut or torn paper instead of paintings. These works, ignored in their day, are now regarded as some of Matisse's greatest accomplishments for the way they anticipated future art trends. And the most prominent of these cut-paper pieces are those from Matisse's "Jazz Suite." "In my 'Jazz' prints, I used cut-out shapes and created a tension of negative and positive spaces," notes Chisman--just as Matisse did.

Chisman's "Jazz" prints reveal several different directions for the artist. While some are reminiscent of his paintings, repeating his signature red-yellow-blue palette, others feature acid tones of green and brown, unexpected from the artist. "I'm trying to do something different with the colors in the small prints," he says. "I'm always trying to experiment. I can't do the same old stuff over and over, because I get tired of it."

Chisman has also expanded his repertoire of shapes, using circles and geometric forms more conspicuously than usual. But he says the shapes aren't meant to evoke narrative meanings--they're "just formal elements, nothing more."

Blue circles dominate the monotype "Byrd" (an altered spelling of revered saxophonist Charlie Parker's nickname) and its companion piece "Jazz." But by varying the position of the circles--and by radically changing the color fields on which they're placed--Chisman produces two distinct yet closely related pieces. The circles in "Byrd" are linked by a heavy graphite scribble and laid against a brick-red ground; the spheres in "Jazz" are placed on a mustard color field, with the scribble off to the side. In both prints, Chisman has masked out some areas by laying paper strips over the base paper and then peeling up the strips after the print goes through the press. This leaves areas of the paper free of ink. Untinted paper shows through in "Jazz," while in "Byrd," Chisman has printed over the masked areas in a burnt orange.

Several other pieces also rely on these fascinating rhythms of inked areas and blank ones. Two of the most striking prints in the "Jazz" series rely heavily on the technique: "Train," a monotype and collage, and "Lionel," a monotype. In "Train," a tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane, Chisman employs an olive-green field and masks out a jagged shape on the right side. Softening the boundary between the field and the masked portion is a torn piece of beige paper used as a collage element. In "Lionel," which creates vibes worthy of namesake Lionel Hampton, several vertical shapes are placed across the center of a chartreuse ground.

Not much is going on in these prints--but it's just enough. Chisman says he was "trying to simplify, using simpler shapes and making the prints not as cluttered." It's a new approach for an artist whose work typically falls into the abstract-expressionist camp. But Chisman is attracted by the purity of the unadorned color field, the standard of the minimalists. The most extreme case is "No. 2 Billy," his ode to Billie Holiday, a monotype and collage in which a field of vibrant electric blue fills the entire picture plane. In the center, Chisman has added some light, graphite scribbles that are barely visible.

"That field of blue was so wonderful, I could have left it alone," he says. "There's something about a color field that alters perception, but for some reason, I always have to scribble something on top of it."

As "Billy" makes clear, Chisman isn't easy to pigeonhole. And some of the prints here, especially those that were reworked in the second printing, are anything but simple. In "Dave," a monotype named after Dave "Take Five" Brubeck, Chisman puts meandering red lines among serpentine blue forms. Also rich in pictorial elements is "Art," a monotype and collage that tips its hat to Art Tatum and includes two large white masked-out shapes combined with a partial color field of ochre.

Even more formally complex is "Thelonious," whose piano-playing namesake needs no introduction. In that piece, a sinuous red shape is placed next to black geometric elements that Chisman has recycled from prints he made in the 1960s. It's the only point in the "Jazz" series where Chisman cops from his own riffs. However, he relies heavily on the technique in all four of the large prints, which incorporate woodcuts and etchings he made as a University of Colorado art student in 1964 and 1965. Chisman says he came upon the pieces last year while going through his files. "I liked the idea of saying something new with old material," he adds.

Two of the four large prints explicitly address Chisman's interest in looking forward and back at the same time. In "History 1," a rectangle that's more than six feet tall, Chisman places a twisting yellow line through the middle of a deep red field. The torn black and white prints that have been added as collage elements are partly obscured by red ink that blends with the field. "History 2" is likewise a large vertical, but it is predominantly blue. At the top is a torn print fragment; at the bottom, the blue-patterned gift wrap also seen in "Art."

Chisman has always relied on his visual instincts, and he hasn't been afraid to embrace mistakes. It's a trait well-illustrated by another of the large vertical prints, "Duchampian Break." The tongue-in-cheek name, suggested by printer Lunning, refers to a 1915 Marcel Duchamp piece that is commonly known as the "Large Glass" and was "brought to a state of incompletion" in 1923 when it was dropped and cracked extensively. The title of Chisman's tribute refers to the fact that the paper was inadvertently put in backward, leading to a print that is clearly out of register. Like the "Large Glass," it turned out to be a happy accident.

Many of the prints in the Jazz exhibit--especially the minimalist efforts--bring to mind the artists of the New York School, in particular the late Robert Motherwell, twenty of whose works recently were featured in a display at the Denver Art Museum. Chisman says he doesn't believe he was directly influenced by the Motherwells at DAM. But he does acknowledge one link to the old modern master, who's now the subject of a solo show across the street at the Robischon Gallery. Jokes Chisman, who was in New York last month when Jazz premiered at 1/1, "I missed my opening, and so did Motherwell."

Dale Chisman: Jazz, through March 9 at 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee Street, 298-9284.

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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