There's a must-see exhibition at Ironton Gallery called Stephen Batura: Stream that features some very recent paintings assembled into a singular installation. In the '90s, Batura was part of an upstart generation of emerging artists right out of school who were interested in doing work with representational imagery cast into a contemporary context. Batura's chosen path was to create paintings based on historic images. I recall paintings of dresses, of train wrecks and, for the past ten-plus years, paintings of Denver's daily life a century ago inspired by photographs taken by Charles Lillybridge, an amateur camera hobbyist whose 1,300 photographs wound up at History Colorado.
Batura uses the photos as "sketches" for his paintings, so the relationship between the two isn't precise: The painter changes the photographer's compositions, cropping them in different ways and even altering the details.
For Stream, seventeen horizontal panels are lined up end to end, covering 110 linear feet. Although each one has an individual, non-continuous composition and a distinctive palette, they've been installed together as a single work, and none of them has been individually titled. All of the scenes are set along the Platte River or some other waterway; they are episodic but not sequential, and Batura only determined the specific order in which they would be arranged after he brought the panels to the gallery. This combine-mural wraps around the walls of Ironton's L-shaped gallery, creating what is clearly a visual tour de force. Batura has experimented before with multi-part murals; in 2001, he created "Lowry Trios," a set of twelve related paintings scattered over a large wall, at the Schlessman Family Library.
The paintings in Stream are more loosely done and sketchy than works like "Lowry Trios," and it turns out that Batura wanted to move in that direction. When Ironton director Jill Hadley Hooper invited him to show there, he says he felt like he was being offered a kind of freedom from his need to relentlessly perfect his work.
"Suddenly, it was like in my old Pirate days," says Batura. "That was twenty years ago, and then I didn't care if a painting sold or not." It was just this past February that he undertook this work, and to complete it, Batura immersed himself in a frenzy of painting. "I was going ten to twelve hours a day, and I was still working on one painting the day the show went up," he notes.
The strength of his work has helped Batura establish a solid career; his gallery representative is Robischon Gallery, the city's flagship art venue.
Speaking of Robischon, there are four solos on view there that match up beautifully with Batura's Ironton excursion as well as with each other.
Commanding the large front spaces is Allison Gildersleeve: Within Earshot, which comprises a selection of remarkable paintings in which the New York artist employs abstract-expressionist methods but uses them to convey representational subjects — in this case, scenes in the woods, and not purely abstract ones. Gildersleeve lays the paint on thick, but it has a hastily applied look, as though the paintings were done in a fury of activity. But juxtaposed with this slapdash approach — an abstract-expressionist signature — is the fact that the landscape elements still come through, which means that the brushwork has been carefully carried out. (The slashes of paint used to convey the tree branches resemble the drips and runs in classic AbEx.)
Gildersleeve is not only gifted in the ability to reconcile opposite motives, but is also great as a colorist, having expertly orchestrated a wide array of shades found in nature. In fact, these paintings literally glow in places.
In the small space beyond the Gildersleeves is Jack Balas: Yes/No (the Woods), which is made up of mostly intimately scaled paintings that combine Western themes with enigmatic references. The title painting, "Yes/No (the Woods)," is very compelling. On a horizontally oriented panel, Balas has put a tree trunk in the foreground, with a wooded scene receding behind it on either side. But he throws the viewer a curve, since the tree trunk has not been painted in at all, but is simply the exposed wood of the underlying board; the scenes to the side have been painted around its bare silhouette.
A signature for Balas is the depiction of the male figure, and several of the works include men. I loved "The Secret," in which a miniature elk perches atop the head of a handsome young guy. (To see more Balas paintings, especially those based on the male figure, head over to the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where he is the focus of another solo, Jack Balas: Override, installed in the Rude Gallery.)
In the series of roomy spaces adjacent to Robischon's main space is Trine Bumiller: Stand, which focuses on recent work by the well-known Denver painter. The paintings are markedly simpler than the work she's been doing for the past couple of decades. In those, Bumiller would assemble various panels, each painted with its own individual compositions, to create an installation of sorts that conveyed the idea of the natural world. For each of her new paintings, Bumiller used only a single panel and a single image — a bare tree set against the evening sky. Though this appears to be a new direction, it actually marks a return to Bumiller's earliest interests, as she's been drawing bare trees since she was a child.
Though the subject speaks to nature, the colors she uses do not. In "Tree of Resolute Clarity," for instance, bluish branches are set against a yellowish sky. Another noteworthy aspect of these paintings is the vagueness of the imagery, with Bumiller inserting just enough detail to convey the images of trees and sky — and no more. That means that they are, like the Gildersleeves, a hybrid of abstraction and representation.
In the handsome back gallery is Tom Judd: Manifest Destiny, which features paintings with collage that hark back to the photos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each of these works depicts mountains, though in a couple, the rugged topography is used as a minor background element. The mountain scenes have been rendered in an old-fashioned style, in stale, old-fashioned palettes. But Judd, a Philadelphia artist, then inserts passages of unexpected color, collage elements and even found objects.
A couple of the pieces include depictions of old biplanes, while a couple others incorporate fussy wallpaper setting off the painted parts. One of the most intriguing is "The Central Flaw," a view of a snowcapped mountain. Judd has attached four vintage botanical slides with dead plant specimens pressed between two sheets of glass attached in a loose composition on top. It looks simultaneously old and new, as do all of his pieces here.