Picture Perfect

It's hardly a new observation to say that the invention of photography revolutionized the visual arts; it's trite, but true. Before photography, the best way to capture the appearance of exterior reality was to paint it. Once people could take photos, however, the idea of painting as a window on the world was conceptually out the window. In fact, it's likely that the invention of photography played a big role in the rise of impressionism and abstraction more than a century ago, as well as other new styles of expression.

In the 1960s, painters began to respond to photography by embracing its methods. This led to the development of photo-based techniques, such as the incorporation of photographic imagery into paintings, and traditional work that pictorially captures the character of photographs while preserving the tactile surface qualities of painting. Known as photo-realism, hyper-realism, super-realism or contemporary realism, the movement attracted a lot of artists, particularly in the West.

Two artists of this type have been paired in separate offerings at the William Havu Gallery. On the main floor is Jeanette Pasin Sloan, a large exhibit featuring striking and remarkably detailed paintings and works on paper by the internationally known New Mexico artist. On the mezzanine is Rick Dula, made up of a handful of this Coloradan's easel-sized paintings of changing Denver landmarks.

Pasin Sloan, born in Chicago in 1946, studied at Marymount College before receiving an MFA in graphics from the University of Chicago. Her expertise in the graphic arts was reflected in her early and continuing interest in printmaking; since 1978, she's been producing prints for Landfall Press, which was founded by her husband, Jack Lemmon, in 1970. The exhibit at Havu includes several lithographs (with others available on request) and a single linocut, all courtesy of Landfall. But the main thrust of the show is Pasin Sloan's skill as a painter, and it includes creations in both oil and watercolor.

A special interest for the artist is capturing the visual tricks brought on by patterns reflected in shiny surfaces; the eye-dazzling and complicated results are an ideal vehicle to demonstrate her unbelievable technical skill. She begins by setting up a still life with a piece of patterned fabric on which silver vessels of various types have been placed. Next, she photographs the still life, then records what she sees in paint, precisely following the elaborate elements of her constructed scenes.

The rich detail is mirrored — pun intended — in the luxuriousness of the fabrics and the silver vessels, and I don't think that's a coincidence. In "Silver Maze," Pasin Sloan has placed a mid-century-modern silver pedestal dish on a field of silver material that has an all-over Greek Key motif in black. The linear pattern and its morphed reflections in the dish allow the painting to both appear highly realistic and to have an abstract, geometric quality. The same is true of all the pieces here, as Pasin Sloan uses dots, circles and other abstract patterns together with simple modernist objects.

During the past forty years, artists have done this kind of representational imagery to death, but Pasin Sloan, who's been at it almost that long, has the skill and imagination to put a new wrinkle in the old approach. The same can be said for Rick Dula's paintings, as they also refer to abstraction by way of realism — in his case, by rendering actual scenes of objects that look abstract.

Dula spent most of his life in California, emerging with a BFA from California State University, Hayward in 1984. He has built his career on capturing the often gritty roadside scenes glimpsed in neglected parts of cities and towns. His interests from his California period remind me of those of an urban archaeologist, because Dula most frequently captured the extremely un-picturesque landscape of blacktop and factories.

After moving to Denver, he subtly changed topics, focusing instead on local scenes. In a trio of paintings, Dula recorded the construction of Daniel Libeskind's Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum. In another group, it was last summer's demolition of the Rocky Mountain News building that caught his attention. You could say he froze the Hamilton as it was coming and did the same for the Rocky as it was going. The idea of construction is the opposite of demolition, but from a pictorial standpoint, they are essentially the same; the views constantly change as the work on each progresses.

It's tempting to explain Dula's eccentric taste in topics along some kind of political or ecological lines. But that wouldn't be right, because to him, these sights are majestic in their own right, even if they're not "pretty" in a conventional sense.

More than most artists who are concerned with being as realistic as possible, Dula also goes in for some textural, painterly brush work rather than the utter flatness that might be expected given his style of choice. So although his paintings are extremely realistic, they'd never be mistaken for photos.

While Pasin Sloan and Dula have incorporated photography into their processes by using photos instead of sketches for their preliminary studies, Boulder-based artist Bonny Lhotka comes at the issue from an entirely different direction in Natural Order at Walker Fine Art. She does photos that have the look of paintings.

Lhotka, one of the founders ten years ago of a group called Artists of the Digital Atelier, has been experimenting with photographic techniques since the '60s. In her recent work, she has used several of these techniques, all of which are finely applied. "Breeze" is a mural-sized piece in which a multi-colored image of fallen leaves has been repeated 36 times and arranged in a six-by-six grid. It is the most full-bodied and fully realized of several botanical compositions that also include flowers and birds. One of the most interesting aspects of "Breeze" is how Lhotka had some of the leaves in each panel laser-cut out of plastic panels. The cut pieces were then mounted on top of the flat image so that the entire work has an intriguing — and lively — three-dimensional surface.

Also lively is "Tall Wave," with imagery that actually changes as viewers walk by it. In a six-panel version (an eight-panel version also exists), Lhotka has taken video images of a wave and then printed them in the multi-surface lenticular technique so that the wave seems to be crashing onto the shore. Though the same image is used in each of the six panels, in our mind's eye they seem to be a view of a single enormous wave.

Photography isn't the only aesthetic device out there (the other half of Natural Order is filled with brawny wooden sculptures by Montana's Phoebe Knapp), but it clearly holds lots of potential in the hands of artists. And as underscored by its effect on other art forms such as painting, photography is a very big deal in the broader field of contemporary art, something that's sure to be the case for the foreseeable future.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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