Panoramic Views

For its holiday offering, LoDo's Robischon Gallery has teamed up a pair of disparate shows that together give viewers some sense of the pluralism reigning at the end of this century.

In the series of rooms that make up the gallery's main space, including what is from time to time called the Artforms space, the group show Proverbs explores contemporary photography and contains an in-depth presentation of the recent work of Ruth Thorne-Thomsen.

Thorne-Thomsen, who now lives in Philadelphia, spent most of the 1980s in Denver. From 1983 to 1989 she served on the University of Colorado's art faculty at the Auraria campus, and it would hardly be an understatement to say that during those years, she played a significant role in the development of local photography. Thorne-Thomsen was on the cutting edge of a number of sweeping revivals that changed the face of fine-art photography in the Eighties. Looking to early photography, she found approaches that had been abandoned over the years and breathed new life into them. She advocated the use of primitive cameras, she made narrative pictures and she took staged, as opposed to candid, photographs. Today these are ubiquitous features of vanguard photography, but that wasn't the case when Thorne-Thomsen was embracing them. Her enduring legacy is obvious even a decade after she left town, since many of this city's most interesting contemporary photographers are still directly or indirectly influenced by her work or by that of her many distinguished former students, in particular the late Wes Kennedy.

At Robischon, Thorne-Thomsen is represented by more than a dozen signature photographs that combine stilted and nearly surrealist landscape backdrops with classical statuary in lieu of figures. Given that the statues depict Greek and Roman gods, they seem absurd in the outdoor settings Thorne-Thomsen has provided them. Also, by combining the classical images with images such as a chair or barbed wire, Thorne-Thomsen literally changes the meaning of the statues' existing poses. Though she goes to great pains to convey three-dimensionality in these photographs, especially through the use of deep shadows, the illusion of depth is unconvincing--and surely that's her intention. Though the view is nominally expansive, with the horizons visible across the middle of the photos, the shallow field of each picture lends an eerie feel to the superficially idealized scenes.

Most of Thorne-Thomsen's pieces in Proverbs are standard contact prints, but there are also two monumental black-and-white photo enlargements. Gallery co-director Jennifer Doran, who arranged the show, has given each of these limited-edition silver-toned prints its own wall, and both can be seen from the street through Robischon's large display windows. As viewers enter the gallery, they're faced with "Though the Cage May Be Made of Gold, It Is Still a Cage," in which Thorne-Thomsen places a found image of a statue of Venus on an indefinite ground and sets the statue against a cloud-filled sky. Wrapped in a conical spiral around the Venus is a coil of barbed wire. To the left of "Though the Cage" is the enlargement "There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, but Thinking Makes It So," which follows the same enigmatic program, combining a found image of a statue with constructed ground and sky. "There Is Nothing" depicts a striding male torso "walking" across the bare landscape below some ominous dark clouds. The torso is a ruin that has lost its arms and head, but Thorne-Thomsen has "restored" it by placing a tangle of twigs standing in for the statue's missing head.

Thorne-Thomsen isn't the only photographer in Proverbs who's interested in neo-classicism. In the gallery immediately behind the front rooms is a series of large, rich and murky black-and-white silver-print photos of manicured landscapes by Lynn Geesaman. These are officially untitled, but each is distinguished by its subject's particular location.

Geesaman, who lives in Minneapolis, has taken photographs of European and American gardens. She's not interested in the backyard variety but rather in world-class gardens such as the Parc de Sceaux in France, the subject of two of her photographs here. Geesaman has also photographed Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens, capturing a conically trimmed evergreen set on a meticulously clipped lawn surrounded by flowering trees. The theatricality she's able to orchestrate out of these fixed and still landscape elements is astounding, and the fine selection of Geesaman photos is perhaps the strongest part of the Proverbs exhibit.

Not that there aren't other worthwhile attractions, including four sepia-toned panoramic photographs by artist-collaborators Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, who did these works on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The four photos are actually not made up of single shots; each has been made using many sequential images lined up to form a unified view. They are, according to the artists, fictional photographic documents of a re-created "historical" event, the gliding experiments of one Peter Hesselbach supposedly carried out in 1936. Though Kahn and Selesnick claim otherwise in their written statement (asserting that the Hesselbach series was inspired by the contents of a scrapbook on the subject found in a backwater history museum in Massachusetts), the experiment itself, like the re-creations, is surely a work of pure fiction.

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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

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