Review: Our Vulnerable Western Landscape Stars in Two Solo Shows at Robischon

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Kevin O'Connell: Memories of Water Lucas Foglia: Frontcountry William Lamson: Automatic Robischon Gallery 1740 Wazee Street

The varied and reliably dramatic vistas of the American West are the reason there's a category of work called Western art. The scenery, from mountains to plains, deserts to lakes, has a celebrity quality about it that has made our region internationally known.

And it's also the reason that artists started coming here more than 150 years ago and continue to do so today. This is the setup for two impressive solos at Robischon Gallery: Kevin O'Connell: Memories of Water and Lucas Foglia: Frontcountry. A third solo on display there, William Lamson: Automatic, isn't set around here but depicts a similar-looking landscape that's actually in South America.

See also: Review: Plus Strikes Gold With Its Final Show, Jenny Morgan: The Golden Hour

Without question, O'Connell is one of the most important contemporary photographers in Colorado; this show, his fourth solo at Robischon, is installed in the series of spaces up front. Best known for his moody and often tiny photos of the prairie, O'Connell also sometimes depicts the incursions into the Western plains by the energy industry. In this recent series, "Memories of Water," O'Connell examines the problems of water shortage through a metaphorical trip from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest.

Noting that the plains were at one time a sea floor, O'Connell has observed that when someone is out on the plains, "one's eyes tend to focus on the horizon." He goes on to write that "the experience must be similar to being on a boat in the middle of the ocean" and that when you move, "everything seems to remain the same."

In some of the photos, the water isn't even there; there's only the evidence that it once was, as in "In Every Dry Gully, an Ache Lingers," in which O'Connell has shot a dry creekbed straight on as it heads toward the horizon in the background. In others, such as "A Dispersed Form of Knowing," the shot takes in nothing but water, in this case recording a cross-hatch of surface currents.

There's an extremely elegant simplicity to these photos, as might be expected, given the subject of flat land and flat water. Heightening the minimalism is the fact that many are large. One unusual visual effect is created through the pigment-print process; unlike typical photos, these do not have smooth surfaces. Instead, each color has its own expressed margins, so that when they are examined up close, they almost look like paintings.

For Frontcountry, Foglia spent seven years traveling in the rural West, visiting some of the most isolated communities in the country. His images of the residents and the desolate areas in which they live reveal a tremendous sense of intimacy, and they suggest that the photographer -- who was born in New York and spent the last several years in California -- was able to embed himself into these communities and thus gain the trust of his subjects.

His digital C-prints are sometimes lyrical, sometimes even whimsical, but many have a feel-good quality undercut by references to the dark side seen in other photos in the series. The contrast is between the traditional ranching life of these places, as seen in photos like "Alex Running Home From School...," which depicts a kid running along a dirt road, and the brutal world of the energy boom displayed in "Surface Mining, Newmont Mining Corporation...," in which a mountainside is scarred, relentlessly cut away into terraces.

Though Foglia makes no overt political statements with this work, the disparity between the appealing people and the unappealing corporations is hard to miss. I thought these photos had a lot to recommend them, neatly falling into a tradition dating back to the great WPA-era photographs of the 1930s that are of the same type.

Installed in a small space situated in between the O'Connell section and the one given over to Foglia is Lamson's Automatic, a very small show made up of only three works: a video projection and a couple of drawings. The video records a contraption that Lamson built. Lamson has taken a plastic bottle that's been filled with water, inverted it, and attached a pen to its neck. The bottle periodically hits a piece of paper on the ground, allowing the pen to make a mark on it with the apparatus held aloft, just above the paper, by a kite held in place by the weight of the liquid in the bottle.

Automatism, the idea of non-intentional marking, is an important modernist idea and a signature of a lot of abstraction. Lamson converts the process conceptually by allowing the wind to guide the application of the marks instead of guiding them himself like an automatist painter would. The whole idea is very smart.

There's also a small photo-based group show, New Topographies, at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, that likewise takes up the theme of contemporary landscape art with a Western edge. Organized by CPAC director Rupert Jenkins and photographer Conor King, this exhibit zeroes in on three photographers: Amelia Carley, Zoe Childerley and Sonja Hinrichsen, all of whom use Colorado as their unifying theme. Each does work that refers to installation art, with two being represented by actual installations and the other by photographic depictions of outdoor installations that she orchestrated.

Carley's work, from her "Rexford Mine Fire" series, comes up in the entry space, with a selection of objects by this Colorado artist that includes a photo mural, a freestanding sign, and some works on paper that purportedly document a historic event. It's actually a made-up story involving two women who are widows of miners who died in the disaster. Taking over the long wall in the space proper is a fragment of Childerley's wall installation, "The Land of Milk and Honey," which includes drawings and photos. A British artist, Childerley took a residency in Walsenburg courtesy of the Museum of Friends. Like Foglia at Robischon, she became embedded with the country folk who live in the area and took candid photos of them.

Finally, there are the well-known photos by Hinrichsen, who lives part-time in California. To create her famous "Snow Drawings at Catamount Lake," she directs as many as sixty volunteers from the Steamboat Springs area to walk in patterns in the snow (there's a video of the process running in a niche) and thus create gigantic abstract drawings that are acres across. She then photographs the drawings from high above using drones with cameras attached. They are absolutely incredible.

For most of the last century, to call something Western art was to degrade it and to label it as inferior to art made back east or in Europe. But then scholars, dealers, museums and others suddenly noticed that modern and contemporary art actually had deep roots out west. In Denver, with our vibrant gallery culture, we are key beneficiaries of this change of heart, as Western art with a contemporary twist is something that's long been a mainstay of the local art scene.

Turn the page to see more photos from this exhibit.

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