Art Review

Review: Environmental Issues at Robischon and Michael Warren Galleries

The physical world is all around us — and so are solo shows by artists who create pieces that reflect their views on that world.

Robischon Gallery is featuring five individual and divergent, if related, solos. In the large front space, Ian Fisher: In Advance of Light gets the group off to a very strong start. Ever since I first saw Fisher’s hyperrealist paintings of clouds — back in 2008, in an exhibit at the long-gone Gallery T — I’ve been impressed by his talent: He can really paint. Born in Canada, he came to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado Boulder; he became a RedLine resident artist soon after graduating, and quickly made his mark on Denver’s art scene. I haven’t seen every show that Fisher has mounted, so I can’t say for sure, but these new cloud paintings look different. It’s the colors: His earlier palette included vivid sky blues and a huge range of whites, but now he’s using various grays. These are not the lyrical, cotton-candy clouds with which Fisher made a name for himself — like those in his 2014 show at MCA Denver — but instead are ominous storm clouds, a fact that radically shifts the mood while allowing the artist to continue exploring the same subject. This show alone makes a trip to Robischon worth the effort.

Behind a heavy curtain, you’ll find William Lamson: In the Roaring Garden (Rotation), the second in a series of three videos inspired by Walden Pond. Here it’s a video projection of the inside of a model of a small house that’s rotating at the same time as the camera is, so that the model doesn’t seem to be moving even though its contents are sliding around for no apparent reason. (The same technique was used in the classic film Royal Wedding, in which Fred Astaire appears to be dancing up the walls of a room and across its ceiling.)

In the space to the right is Brandon Bultman: Aphelion, an installation by an emerging artist who once lived in Denver and now resides in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2012, Bultman showed a spectacular installation at Robischon — “Búfalo Blanco,” a junked Buick station wagon that was inverted, with grasses planted in its undercarriage. “Búfalo Blanco” was a masterpiece that simultaneously referred to Bultman’s childhood, the disappearing family farms on the plains, the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the Western landscape tradition, among other topics — and it was visually stunning, to boot.  All of that made it a hard act to follow.  This new piece is very different and its appeal less obvious. No doubt influenced by the maritime aspects of Rhode Island, it deals with sea lanes as well as philosophy; Bultman has spelled out author Eugene Thacker’s ideas in white vinyl letters on each of the four gigantic, gray-plastic inflatable buoys that make up the group.

Featured in the window space is Kevin O’Connell: Inundation, which comprises photos of the ocean’s surface along with a video of a beach. O’Connell is one of Colorado’s greatest photographers — not just among those working today, but of all time. Over the past couple of decades, he’s built his reputation mostly with images of the high plains of Colorado, but because the area is an ancient sea bed, he also started showing ocean views in conjunction with them. This time, however, it’s the ocean only.

The O’Connells depict the turbulent sea from above and at an angle; this perspective is a break from the emphasis on the horizon line (where the earth meets the sky), which was a key component in much of his earlier work. In these pieces, O’Connell fills the entire picture plane of each with depictions of the water’s surface. In another departure, these works look like black-and-white photos, though they are actually full-color pigment prints. Typically, O’Connell has done one or the other — color or black and white — but not both simultaneously. The prints are technically fine, as you might expect from O’Connell, and you’ll find yourself marveling at the effects he’s able to achieve. It looks like he’s painted over the photos in places, as the images seem layered. But trust me, he hasn’t.

The Robischon quintet finishes up with Gary Emrich: Spashdown, a video projection that’s the second in the artist’s “Apollo” trilogy. The first work, “Contact,” conflated the moon landing with a bee landing on a flower. This one does the same with the splashdown of an Apollo capsule on July 18, 1969, and another momentous event that day: Senator Edward Kennedy’s drunk-driving accident, when he drove off a pier on Chappaquiddick Island and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned as Kennedy fled the scene. Unlike “Contact,” in which the action of the moon landing and the bee’s landing are intrinsically linked, here the association seems random, pegged more by the coincidental date than by the actual situation, since the capsule was meant to land in the water, while the car wasn’t.

Emrich constructs the videos using historic found footage and footage he produced himself — of hands working on his iPad, hands building a model of the car involved in the accident (an Oldsmobile) and repairing a model of the rocket — as well as hands holding a St. Christopher medal and statuette. It all creates a compelling and lyrical story, even if it’s a little free-associational. I often find it hard to watch a fine-art video from start to finish, as they’re frequently turgid and boring. But not this time: “Spashdown” is extremely engaging, and I watched it avidly from start to finish. In addition to the video, this area of the gallery includes a couple of stills from “Splashdown” that have been printed up as extremely nice photos, and they made me want to see more of the same sort.

From Robischon, I headed over to Michael Warren Contemporary, where The Line to Follow: Works by Sara Ransford highlights another artist who looks to nature for inspiration. Ransford, who lives in Aspen, was a student of Betty Woodman’s. Woodman is one of the most famous clay artists to ever work in Colorado, and that’s really saying something. Although Ransford’s work doesn’t look anything like Woodman’s, you can see the relationship between pupil and master in her oddly compelling wall sculptures made of a novel material: porcelain paper clay. Ransford takes paper pulp and adds it to porcelain slip, resulting in a thick slurry; this allows her to shape the porcelain so that it has sharp edges. She then layers the resulting forms so that they are like tree bark, or capillaries within a tree trunk. When the pieces are fired, the paper burns away and the shapes are left intact. (It’s like cooking with wine, where the alcohol evaporates but the flavor remains.) Although all of the sculptures are completely abstract, a few evoke the spirit of trees, while others look like topographical studies of the wilderness.

From cave paintings to landscapes, artists have long been creating art that responds to the world around them. Contemporary artists are now continuing the tradition with representational, abstract and conceptual responses that come at us from all aesthetic directions.

Ian Fisher, William Lamson, Brandon Bultman, Kevin O’Connell and Gary Emrich through August 27, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788,

Sara Ransford through September 3, Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-635-6255,
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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