Mi Linda Soledad and Casi Casi make up a stunning double dose from Emilio Lobato

This year has started with a bang for those of us who are fascinated by the visual arts culture in Colorado. In January, RedLine unveiled a wholehearted salute to Dale Chisman, a master in the field of abstract painting here during the last three decades.

With that show, one of the best things I've ever seen in Denver, RedLine proved that it could attract a who's-who art crowd for an opening. But even more important, it showed that it could host a feature that produced heavy visitor traffic for the entirety of a run. This is something that only rarely has happened at RedLine.

Now there's a worthy heir to the mantle of greatness seen at the Chisman show: Mi Linda Soledad, which means "My Beautiful Solitude," the Emilio Lobato retrospective at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

To my mind, there are many connections between Lobato and Chisman, and they go beyond the fact that both Colorado natives worked in abstract painting in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and displayed their work principally in Denver and Santa Fe. To me, their most profound interconnection is in their training as artists, with both having studied at Colorado College — admittedly decades apart — with the late Mary Chenoweth. Her influence is easy to see in their shared use of collage and of geometrically conceived compositions that also feature expressionist elements.

Lobato was born in the town of San Pablo in the San Luis Valley in 1959, where his family had lived for centuries. They were a part of the Hispanic and Roman Catholic culture that has flourished there, and the artist's early experiences — in particular, his exposure to the Penitente Brotherhood, whose members reenacted the Stations of the Cross with a Passion of the Christ-style taste for gore and violence — left a lasting impression on him.

Though his grandfather had been a weaver, Lobato felt that his taste for art made him an outcast. The reference to loneliness in the retrospective's title, and in many of the titles of individual works in the show, reflect a difficult childhood. At the age of nineteen, he moved to Colorado Springs to attend CC, where he found Chenoweth and another key mentor, sculptor Carl Reed. After graduation in 1982, Lobato moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his future wife, Darlene Sisneros, attended law school. The two married in 1984 and settled in Denver.

The CSFAC retrospective is installed in a set of galleries on the second floor, just off the connecting atrium that joins the landmark John Gaw Meem-designed building to the expertly conceived addition by David Tryba. The show was put together by Tariana Navas-Nieves, curator of Hispanic and Native American Art at the institution. It's perhaps because of this specialty that she set up an initial section devoted to setting the context of Lobato's life, as she would do in the case of a historical subject. There are photo enlargements, one depicting Lobato as a little boy in the San Luis Valley and a couple that reveal his eccentrically luxurious studio here in Denver. There are also examples of pottery and tribal art, as well as a print by Robert Motherwell and another by Chenoweth, all of which are intended to represent Lobato's aesthetic ancestors.

There are also early works by Lobato in this context area; one of the genuine standouts is "Por Mi Gran Culpa/Through My Most Grievous Fault," from 1982. In this painting, Lobato neatly links his Hispano-Catholic heritage to international abstraction, using the Christian cross as the key formal device to connect the two. On a blank ground of bare paper, Lobato has placed a black cross accented by two ovals on either side of it — Christ's pierced hands? — and spare spatters of blood-red paint surrounding it.

On the opposite wall are paintings that start off the chronology of Lobato's career beginning in the early '90s. In some, as with the cross painting, Lobato reveals his early interest in minimalist ideas. I loved the small but impressive "Nací Triste/I Was Born Sad," wherein a red panel with scribbles on it is attached to a smaller panel that is predominantly black.

Nearby are some good-looking color-field paintings from the "Herida/Wound" series from 1993; they have light grounds and dark slash marks. Next to those are three stunning collage paintings from 1994 that build on the earlier works but came out completely different. They were a real revelation to me, because I'd never seen anything like them before. In these, Lobato has created arrangements of simple shapes and lines that are clustered in the center of light-colored drippy grounds.

The exhibit continues around the corner, past several eye-dazzlers, and arrives in the large-ish gallery that provides an anteroom to the Seagraves Gallery. This is the start of the sections displaying Lobato's best-known works — those from the late '90s through recent years. In many, Lobato placed ripped-out pages from old books across the surface of his pictures, creating grids that have been laid on black grounds. On top of the book-page grids, he put silhouettes of simple shapes that are also in black. These pieces were done in 1998, and I'd seen them before, but I'd never realized how much they responded to the sensibility of his former teacher Reed.

I had also somehow missed — or forgotten — the marvelous compositions made of hard materials, some combined with paper. There are the pieces from the "Cuba" series from 2000 and the slightly later vertical diptych "Ni Sal, Ni Pimiento/Not Salt, Not Pepper," made of rectangles of cut-up book covers from 2002 — all tremendous. The essentially rigorous horizontal/vertical orientation of the rectilinear forms in the diptych have their obvious outcome in the striped paintings from 2007 that simultaneously recall Hispanic weavings and post-painterly abstraction.

These striped paintings lead directly to the work of 2009, where the show ends. Here Lobato has added additional shapes — notably, circles that he combines with stripes and other lines and forms, and with diagonal lines cutting across the horizontal/vertical organization of the backgrounds. All sport dark and rich palettes.

Lobato's story picks up closer to home with Casi, Casi/Bit by Bit at the William Havu Gallery in Denver. This impressive complement to the retrospective includes pieces Lobato has created since 2010. And they reveal that the artist has made yet another change in his aesthetic while remaining on the same path he started out on in the '80s.

Viewers accustomed to the dark palettes of a few years ago may be surprised by the light ones that predominate at Havu, but as we learned at the retrospective, Lobato has gone back and forth between dark and light color schemes.

Also interesting is that Lobato has revealed that the act of sifting through his past pieces for the retrospective had a major effect on his current work. In fact, some of the pieces at Havu are a direct outgrowth of that, including "Vacación/Vacation," in which three rows of circles are placed over an arrangement of found materials, oil paint and collage elements. Also harking back to the earlier work is "Algo Familiar/Something Familiar," a constructivist puzzle of geometric shapes with stripes running through it and lines of circles dividing up the picture plane.

The most surprising pieces in Casi, Casi are the combine-paintings and their preparatory studies, in which Lobato has used bits of wood, cut-up book covers and even pencils and paintbrushes in his compositions. "La Torre de Babel/The Tower of Babel" is an incredible hybrid of painting and sculpture, its irregular shape playing against the white wall and thus annexing it so that it serves as an ad hoc ground. Along the same lines is the show-stopping "La Medida de un Hombre/The Measure of a Man." In this mixed-media piece, Lobato brings together a raft of his earlier devices, including the book pages, black bars, cut book covers, grids and circles, with the novel result coming out looking both totally new and riffing off innumerable precedents that make it a signature Lobato.

Take my advice: Do not miss this stunning double dose of significant works by a living master of Colorado abstraction.

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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