The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has made an outsized contribution to our state’s cultural life over the years, showcasing the most important artists associated with Colorado and mounting one impressive exhibition after another. This has been particularly true since the completion of the hypersensitive addition designed by David Owen Tryba that was appended to the world-class 1936 building by John Gaw Meem, a widely acknowledged masterpiece, in 2007.
That was also when Blake Milteer, who had worked for years in the Modern and Contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum, took over art programming at the Fine Arts Center, as both curator and museum director. Since then, the CSFAC has featured solos focusing on the accomplishments of historic Colorado artists — such as the recent Frank Mechau retrospective — as well as contemporary Colorado artists, as seen in this summer’s major offering, Stephen Batura: A Reservoir of Occurrences, which looks at Batura’s works from the past fifteen years.
Batura, a Denver artist, has long used historic sources from other mediums as ad hoc studies for his conceptual-realist paintings. In 2001, he was surveying digital files of photos from the Denver Public Library; as he worked his way through hundreds of images, he realized he was drawn again and again to shots by Charles Lillybridge, an itinerant amateur photographer who lived in Denver in the early twentieth century. By a stroke of fate, nearly 2,000 of Lillybridge’s glass-plate negatives had wound up at the Colorado Historical Society, now known as History Colorado, and had subsequently been digitized and shared with the DPL. “When I first started to look at them, I knew I wanted to capture the whole thing,” says Batura. In the intervening years, he’s created more than a hundred paintings and over a thousand works on paper inspired by those photos, and feels he has fully encapsulated Lillybridge’s sensibility.
Lillybridge’s subject was the ordinary, everyday reality of life on what was then the south end of Denver — and it was a marginal life, since he lived in a modest shack on the banks of the South Platte River near Alameda Avenue, among other modest shacks. Though Batura does not consider Lillybridge to have been a great photographer — good with neither composition nor details — there’s something compelling in the obsessive nature of the photographer’s effort combined with the mundane character of his subjects: Lillybridge’s family, his friends, his neighbors, nearby workmen, houses and the river. In his sophisticated paintings, Batura corrects the compositions and renders the details expressively. The resulting works ape the black-and-white aesthetic of the Lillybridge photos, with Batura employing a limited set of colors in a handful of contrasting shades for each piece.
The show, which occupies a set of large galleries on the CSFAC’s second floor, includes around thirty paintings and as many works on paper. The opening sequence in the entry space is dramatic, with three Batura paintings propped against a charcoal-colored wall that runs to the left. This trio of paintings serves as an index to the typical subjects that Lillybridge addressed (and Batura appropriated). There’s a small house in “Only Out of Habit,” a group of people at a picnic in “Late Supper,” and the natural environment in “Outskirts.” It’s a great, eye-catching lineup that instantly hooks us into the rest of the show.
Employing an extremely long wall in the adjacent exhibition space, Batura has lined up nine of the seventeen panels that make up his monumental “Stream.” Each panel is exaggeratedly horizontal and depicts a different riverbank scene. Although the style, a sort of slapdash expressionist realism, is the same in all of them, the palettes are wildly different. These shifts in color provide the group with a rhythm, yet do not interrupt the idea that we are looking at a single work — and just a detail, no less, of a much larger piece.
The show concludes with a number of large paintings in the last of the formal galleries to the right. One of the most striking of these is one of the first that Batura painted: “Stock,” a mural-like depiction of a livestock sale, with scores of men and animals crowding the enormous panel on which it is painted.
There’s a bittersweet component to A Reservoir of Occurrences: This is curator Milteer’s swan song at the CSFAC. He’s leaving at the end of the month to join his wife in Scotland, where she teaches at the University of Edinburgh. I’m sorry to see Milteer go, and he told me that he will sorely miss working at the Fine Arts Center. Joy Armstrong has been named acting director of the museum; she’ll continue her work there as a curator. Like Milteer, Armstrong has exhibited a keen interest in Colorado art, and she says she intends to continue focusing on the artists of our state, either by giving them solos or by including them in group shows that comprise artists from around the world.
Milteer’s departure represents a big change for the CSFAC, but there’s an even bigger one on the horizon: Colorado College is in discussions to acquire it. Back in January, Milteer and Erin Hannan, the CSFAC’s director of advancement, told me that the boards of the center and the college had begun to explore the possibility of a takeover; now it sounds as if an agreement might be worked out in the next month or two.
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Although the Colorado Springs Gazette has reported that it was prompted by the center’s inability to service construction bonds used to pay for the addition, CSFAC president and CEO David Dahlin says that’s not the case. “We did a $30 million expansion, and we only owe seven million, with five million of that already on account,” he told me. “The real problem is the deficit spending year after year that is not sustainable over the long term.” It’s important to remember that there is no SCFD funding for the CSFAC, which is outside the district, nor is there any city funding. With its $700 million endowment (and plenty more where that came from), Colorado College would seem an ideal financial angel for the facility. And in fact, Dahlin has great expectations for what might come from such a merger, envisioning a properly funded staff and increased donations and gifts of art from often wealthy CC alums.
That the CSFAC would retain its individual identity was non-negotiable from the start, he notes, and the institution would continue to be run in accordance with the ethical guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums. This would prevent the college from deaccessioning artworks to capitalize on their monetary value, for example.
The center and the college have intertwined histories dating back decades, and the center is conveniently located immediately to the south of the campus, so for many reasons, the deal makes sense. Nonetheless, the idea of Colorado College taking over the Fine Arts Center is pretty darned scary — simply because of how critical the center has been to the cultural life of this time zone. It’s one of the top-tier art institutions in the Rocky Mountain West, and it’s extremely important to all of us that it stay at that peak level of performance.
Stephen Batura: A Reservoir of Occurrences, through September 18, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, 1-719-634-5581, csfineartscenter.org.