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It's amazing how vast the contemporary art world is, including as it does a full array of expressions -- from the most edgy forms, such as video, to the most conservative, such as landscapes, still-life scenes and portraits. Within the realm of representational art that's being done in the area, there are two easy-to-perceive poles of interest: artists who consciously ape historic work, and those who attempt to infuse their work with a contemporary feel.

The Robischon Gallery is presenting Joellyn Duesberry: A Brief Survey of Place, which features paintings by a Colorado artist whose style lies somewhere between these two extremes. Though Duesberry's paintings are very traditional in character, there's something about them that assures viewers that they are not seeing antiques, but rather artifacts representing our own time.

Duesberry maintains a studio in Greenwood Village and one in Millbrook, in her home state of New York. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1966 from Smith College, where she studied art history and traditional painting, she earned a master's at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Subsequently, she undertook additional training at the National Academy, the New York Academy and the New York Studio School. She had her first New York exhibition in 1979, and her eleventh Manhattan solo is slated for November at James Graham & Sons.

In 1985, Duesberry moved out West, working in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. She has written that the move had a profound impact on her paintings. In the East, the landscape is veiled in mist much of the time, a "tyranny" from which she says she was freed by the "dry air and clear light" of the West.

The following year, she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant that allowed her to work with the late Richard Diebenkorn, a California artist known for a signature style that shifts between abstraction and representation. It was a good pairing, because Duesberry was an abstract painter in the 1960s but had since drifted back to the representational work she'd studied in college. It's hard to see Diebenkorn's influence in Duesberry's landscapes, but it's easy to see in her cityscapes.

Duesberry has won many awards over the years, and her work is in many public and private collections, notably that of the Denver Art Museum. She's also received several public art commissions, including her painting in the Red Rocks Visitor Center in Morrison and one that hangs in the Byron White Federal Courthouse downtown. Given this illustrious roster of successes, it's hardly surprising that the Robischon and Manhattan shows are just two of a half-dozen Duesberry solos being presented around the country this year.

For the Robischon exhibit, each of the front rooms has been assigned a specific locale or locales representing where the paintings were done. This geographic separation works well in the first half of the show, especially since the cityscapes really do need to be separated from the landscapes. However, it falls apart in the second half, where scenes of Italy bracket those of New Mexico.

Survey begins with a small group of Colorado landscapes displayed in the space right inside the front door. In these paintings, as with all of the others in this show, Duesberry does not literally illustrate the scenes, but instead organizes, flattens and distorts them, as an abstract painter would. They definitely have a relationship to Paul Cézanne's work of the turn of the last century, especially in the way that Duesberry conveys three-dimensional space by layering in overlapping planes. This Cézanne-esque quality also links her work to that of the early-twentieth-century painters of the Southwest, who were also responding to Cézanne (though more immediately, as the French master was still alive then).

Duesberry's palette, generated from actual colors found in Colorado, is gorgeous and recalls the work done by artists in our region fifty and sixty years ago. Like Duesberry, they derived their palettes from nature.

The first thing that viewers see when they enter the gallery is "Beaver Pond, Chatfield," an oil on linen from 1997. This captivating piece sets the tone for the entire show, and it's wonderful to see a nearby location given the major-painting treatment. Duesberry has compressed the scene, and the bottom foreground is established with a row of grasses expressed with a lineup of brush gestures. In the large middle, which takes up what looks like half the picture plane, is the pond, and the background has been emphatically defined by a wall-like rendition of the snow-covered mountains of the Front Range. Unlike many contemporary representational painters, Duesberry doesn't try to get photographic realism into her work; her pieces are more expressionistic and abstract.

The Robischon show dramatically shifts gears in the other front space, located to the left of the entry. In this section are pieces Duesberry did in 1998 and 1999, when, as a recipient of a World Trade Center grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, she was given a studio in the Twin Towers. The masterpiece of this group is "Clouds Over Midtown, Manhattan," a view of the skyscrapers, with the financial district unfolding into Midtown and the Empire State Building at the top center. Duesberry conveys the buildings and streets with dots and dashes in different colors. This view was once visible from the 91st floor of the North Tower of the WTC, and subtle shadows of the Twin Towers to the right provide a poignant passage in the painting.

Just beyond the New York pieces is a section displaying similar views of Denver. Interestingly, most of these paintings were done a few years before the New York ones. They're all good, but "City Park, Late Sun," from 1996, is a real standout because of its panoramic quality. Duesberry apparently is still interested in these cityscapes, because "Lower Downtown" was completed only a few months ago.

The rest of the exhibit is made up of more landscapes, with settings in New Mexico, New York, Maine, Montana and Italy. These far-flung locations make seeing A Brief Survey of Place at Robischon something like taking a vacation (or several of them), which strikes me as the perfect thing to do in August.

The group show at the William Havu Gallery -- Elizabeth Elting, Jean Gumpper, Betsy Margolius, Ron Trujillo -- is the ideal companion to the Joellyn Duesberry show at Robischon, because it, too, is about contemporary representational painting based on the natural world. All four artists live in Colorado, and all of them have long exhibition records.

The exhibit has been installed as a quartet of solos, with each artist given a separate section of the gallery. Elting's paintings are in the entry space, Gumpper's prints take up the center, Margolius's prints are on the mezzanine, and Trujillo's paintings are displayed in the window and under the mezzanine.

Elting is a Boulder artist who's been exhibiting her work since the mid-1970s, but she's mostly shown in her home town and not Denver, which is why her name will be unfamiliar to many. The Elting pieces at Havu are Western landscapes, but there are a couple of twists. First, the paintings depict aerial views, as though the scenes were being glimpsed from a low-flying plane. Second, they do not record bucolic scenes, but focus on those that reveal the devastation of development, as in "Eye of the Storm," an oil on canvas of a scratched patch of earth, a highway and a lineup of heavy equipment set to do even more damage. In "Where the Sea Used to Be," the topic is sprawl, with the scene being a circle of brand-new houses encroaching on the edge of the plains.

Gumpper lives in Cascade, on Ute Pass west of Manitou Springs. Her specialty is woodcuts of natural scenes, and in the Havu show, her subject is fallen leaves in the water. In a way, the prints appear to be all-over abstractions, since the leaves and trees are simplified into little blobs and dashes, which Gumpper arrays almost evenly across the picture plane. These prints have a quiet dignity and are very beautiful.

Margolius was a household name in Denver art circles a decade or so ago, but she's exhibited locally only rarely since then, and many viewers will have never heard of her. Most of her pieces in the Havu show are monotypes, but she also included one painting on paper. She divided the composition into a series of rectangular shapes, each with a little image in it. The images are of natural things, including leaves and flowers, but they are not meant to be grouped together into a single, coherent image.

Trujillo, who lives in Denver, specializes in printmaking, which he studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he received his BFA and MFA in the field. Plus, for several years he worked with the nationally renowned printmaker Shark's Inc., then in Boulder and now in Lyons. Despite all of this training and experience in printmaking, he's showing paintings at Havu. Also different for Trujillo is his style, which is notably looser and more abstract than what he's been known for over the years. Trujillo formerly rendered his subjects with photographic accuracy, but in these new pieces, outlines are smeared and the canvas is divided into separate hard-edged color fields, which is not very realistic. Trujillo has written that the change in mood from fanatical to laid-back has to do with the birth of his young son, Eric, whom he cares for in his studio. I guess it's hard to be too neat with a baby around.

The group show at Havu and the Duesberry solo at Robischon both go a long way in proving that, as crazy as it seems, art based on nature still has some relevance in contemporary art. It may not be cutting-edge, but for a number of reasons, a lot of people still like it anyway.

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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