Review: Discovering and Interpreting the West Takes a Fresh Look at the Landscape

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Discovering and Interpreting the West The Arvada Center 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard

It was the scenic Rocky Mountains that first attracted artists to Colorado 150 years ago, and paintings and photos of the landscape are the works that laid the foundation for the rapidly developing art scene we have here now.

This kind of art continues to play a key role for many contemporary artists around here, and it was with that in mind that Kristin Bueb, the Arvada Center's exhibition coordinator and registrar, organized the three-part landscape extravaganza Discovering and Interpreting the West: 19th, 20th and 21st Century Landscapes.

See also: Review: Dmitri Obergfell Collapses the Old Into the New at Gildar Gallery

Viewers who want to take in the three shows chronologically, as I did, need to start in the Theater Gallery on the second floor, proceed through the adjacent upper-level galleries for the twentieth-century selections, and then head downstairs to see the 21st-century works, which make up the main part of the show. Bueb laid it out this way because the Arvada's main galleries are on the ground floor.

To put together the nineteenth-century part, Bueb sampled the large Graham and Barbara Curtis Collection of Western art. Though photographic images of the West were done in the nineteenth century, it was more common for engravings based on paintings to be created. Such engravings were reproduced as prints that appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, and it is these reproductions that fill this section of the show. Although fairly small, most are crammed with details, and they represent the works of some of the biggest names in the field from that time, including Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer and Thomas Moran. As when these works were new, the prints allow a wider audience to appreciate the work of these acknowledged masters.

The twentieth-century exhibit is not as tight as the nineteenth, and, truth be told, there are some real dogs in this part of Discovering and Interpreting the West, in particular an unappealing Clarence Durham. But the sour notes are more than made up for by the inclusion of strong pieces such as Boardman Robinson's "Colorado Mountains," a dry and crumbly view of assembled pale shades that defines the Colorado Springs aesthetic. Also nice, and closely related, is "Grey Rocks," by Edgar Britton, and "Colorado Springs Landscape, Cheyenne Creek," by Ernest Lawson, a little gem that's full of marks made by heavy daubs of pigment.

Compelling, too, are the modernist interpretations of Western scenery by Vance Kirkland, John Billmyer, Charles Bunnell and William Sanderson. Bueb borrowed works for this section from the collection of artists Tracy Felix and Sushe Felix, from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and from the Kirkland Museum.

For the main attraction on the lower level, which features current Western landscape-based work, Bueb selected nineteen artists -- most of them based in Colorado, and most of them represented by paintings. Interspersed among them, however, is a smattering of photos, drawings, ceramics, video, collages and prints. Bueb set the stylistic parameters so that at one end there are highly detailed realist works and at the other abstracted or conventionalized ones, with combinations of the two polar opposites falling somewhere in between.

In this way, the curator has laid out her vision of the big picture of contemporary art based on the region's landscape. In an effort to help make sense of this diversity and establish a kind of order, each artist has been given his or her own dedicated section.

Among the painters are some longtime practitioners; the show includes a clutch of Sushe Felix's cubist-related landscapes, as well as conventionalized views of mountains and clouds by her husband, Tracy Felix. Jerry Kunkel is a genuine old master and a conceptual realist, to boot; his two paintings play with nineteenth-century landscapes that have been shoved into a contemporary context. I loved the witty "Auto Focus (For Albert Bierstadt)."

Among some of the younger but established artists is Nathan Abels, whose three paintings here are intriguing, especially "Nightshade," which depicts a tree in the moonlight. Also worth noting are the paintings and video by Beau Carey. I especially liked "Fence," in which Carey defines the surface of the picture with a series of red "x" marks behind which a landscape unfolds. Other notable pieces are the striking photo-realist paintings by Paul Jacobsen and the crisp and elegantly cool photo-like takes on the mountains by Kelly Schurger. The depiction of a sunset by Mai Wyn Schantz sets up a contrast between her traditional approach and the post-minimalism of her use of separate aluminum panels; each has a broad horizontal bar running across the bottom.

Among the most unusual inclusions are the paintings by Andrew Roberts-Gray, who's fairly new to the Front Range scene. In these neat paintings, Roberts-Gray applies abstract shapes on top of a ghostly landscape. Also taking his own path to the landscape is Jason Thielke, who has done linear and constructivist takes on it in "Monument" and "Garden of the Gods."

In addition to painters, there are a handful of photographers included here. Kevin O'Connell is represented by two of his marvelous signature scenes of the plains, while Denis Roussel's tintypes, made on the road and in the traditional process, are presented as exquisite objects, with the method's deep, dark tones creating a sense of luxury.

Brenda Biondo pairs close-ups with vistas for her photo-based prints, which poetically convey natural scenes. I'd seen the void photos by Noah Manos before, and they really hold up visually and conceptually. In them, a black spot takes the middle of a landscape photo, essentially annihilating the expected view. There is also a photo of a miniature landscape in a fish tank by Kim Keever, the only artist not from the region.

Bueb included a couple of artists who work with paper. Michael Burrows does it the traditional way, using it as the base for his meticulous and impressive pencil drawings, which have a hyperrealist character. Libby Barbee cuts up reproductions of historic documents and maps to create collages, while Sharon Strasburg laser-cuts monotypes and lays the pieces onto birch panels, with the results looking something like wooden inlays.

Depictions of the landscape are rarely sculptural -- an ironic fact, as dimensionality is an important aspect of scenery. But Bueb was able to find at least one artist who uses the vista as a taking-off point for sculpture: Chandler Romeo, whose monumental installation "Township" depicts the land through assembled tiles.

If there is a fault with this final leg of the show, where the contemporary works are displayed, it has to do with the exhibition design. From my point of view, it's too crowded, and although I wouldn't have eliminated any of the artists on Bueb's excellently assembled roster, I would have had fewer works by some of them, just to allow for a little more air in the show. But having an embarrassment of riches is surely a minor complaint. Plus, the three parts together represent a major offering.

Discovering and Interpreting the West Through November 16 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.

Turn the page to see more photos from this exhibit.

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