Land Minds

Putting together a coherent art show is difficult, and so many of the shows I see -- even some of the good ones -- don't exactly make sense. Imagine, then, how rare it is to find not one, but three shows that all make sense. And not only that, but the three interrelate to such a great extent that they could be viewed as a single ad hoc exhibit.

The shows are now on display at the Robischon Gallery in LoDo, and the collective theme is the Western landscape as interpreted by established Colorado contemporary artists. All three were expertly organized and handsomely arranged by the gallery's co-director, Jennifer Doran.

Installed in the two front spaces and in one of the side galleries is Don Stinson: Art & Ruins, which examines a series of recent paintings by this well-known artist from Evergreen. Over the last decade or so, Stinson has made a reputation with paintings and mixed-media pieces in which neglected roadside attractions, including crumbling gas stations, boarded-up motels and, most famously, abandoned drive-in movie theaters, are placed in the foreground, with majestic Western scenery filling the background.

The new pieces are a logical outgrowth of these paintings of modern ruins. But this time, Stinson is rendering what could be called post-modern ruins -- three internationally renowned conceptual earthworks. From a certain standpoint, it could be argued that representational painting and conceptual art are on opposite ends of the art world, with the former coming out of an age-old tradition and the latter breaking new ground, so to speak. But Stinson doesn't see it that way, or recognize the distinction. He points out that conceptual art is based on ideas, and that "painting has a very direct connection to ideas -- maybe the most direct."

His show includes three large paintings, each devoted to one of the selected earthworks, along with more than a dozen small watercolors. The first of the major paintings is "Surfacing: Reversal of Ruins, Spiral Jetty, February 2003, PM," an oil on linen that captures the late Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in the afternoon.

"Spiral Jetty," from 1970, is a series of large granite boulders arranged in the form of a spiral spit of land going out from the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake; its distinctive form is outlined by water. The Smithson became world-famous almost immediately after it was completed, and it has been illustrated and discussed in just about every historical art survey of the twentieth century published since then. The enduring fame of "Spiral Jetty" is especially interesting because the work was completely invisible for decades, having been flooded over soon after Smithson finished it. In 2003, drought caused the water level of the lake to fall, and "Spiral Jetty" was again visible, allowing Stinson to record it before it disappeared again, which it has.

The monumental painting is made up of a theatrically cloud-streaked sky with a dark bar of land across the bottom. Near the middle is a small group of rocks in the water. If Stinson hadn't referred to a "Spiral Jetty" in the epic-length title, viewers might think they were looking at a picturesque view of a lakefront. But once they are tipped off, the meaning changes, making Stinson's outlandish claim that painting is conceptual a pretty plausible one after all.

The other major Stinson paintings of earthworks are "On the Map: Viewing Stations, Sun Tunnels, December, 2003 AM," depicting Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels," from 1973, and "High Beams & Starlight: Beyond Absence, Double Negative, July, 2003 PM," which illustrates Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," completed in 1970. Both paintings are night views. Stinson has a special interest in painting the night, and he's very adept at it.

In the gallery around the corner from the spaces devoted to Stinson is a smart-looking photography show called Chuck Forsman: Western Rider. It's made up of black-and-white photographs of Western scenery taken from inside a car, so that the windshield and side windows become a major part of the compositions. Like Stinson, Forsman also depicts earthworks, but the ones he chooses are not works of art; instead, they're the scars left by industry.

Forsman, who's from Boulder, is not renowned as a photographer, but as one of the state's most prominent painters. However, photography is nothing new for him -- he's been taking photos all along. They have a lot to do with how he creates his paintings, and it's clear after seeing Western Rider that Forsman uses photos as preparatory studies.

The Forsman photos are elegant, and the use of the car's interior is very effective, adding both to the compositions and to the narrative content. The Forsman exhibit coincides with the publication of a book of his photos, Western Rider: Views From a Car Window, which is available at the gallery.

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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