Robischon Gallery goes hyper-local

During the many years I've been paying attention to art in Colorado, there's one thing that's always bugged me: people in positions of power or influence who dismiss it or degrade it. There are many reasons for this, but my favorite is when these detractors project their own low self-esteem onto the community. They're only interested in international things — you know, like the International House of Pancakes.

A snarky comparison? Yes, but it's not a joke. Believing that only a handful of artists in the world are worth admiring is the same as believing that only a handful of big chain restaurants are worth eating at. Local artists, like local eateries, can be just as great.

The Robischon Gallery certainly doesn't shy away from the internationally famous, but it also promotes our local scene, as it's doing with the three remarkable exhibits now on display there. Like a great theme show at a museum, the three come together seamlessly.

In the front space is Kevin O'Connell, which showcases an artist whose recent work addresses Colorado's energy industry. In each of his color photos, O'Connell captures a derelict piece of equipment related to the oil and gas industry. Conceptually, these photos are closely related to the shots of wind turbines that make up his current show at MCA Denver, Kevin O'Connell: Everything Comes Broken.

O'Connell was originally trained as an engineer and then went on to law school, which is what brought him from his home state of Indiana to Colorado in 1981. During his student days at the University of Denver's School of Law, he became interested in photography and arranged to study independently with the late Ron Wohlauer. Today his work is in a number of museum collections, including the Denver Art Museum's; O'Connell is famous for his tiny contact prints of the high plains done in the platinum palladium process, wherein metal is poured directly onto the paper.

The photos at Robischon — and at the MCA, for that matter — are very different, being large-format pigment prints. The industrial elements are placed at the center of the shots, portrait style, with the plains and sky enveloping them. The equipment includes tanks, sheds and pumps, all of which are in a run-down state and, as such, contrast with the pristine natural settings in which they're found. A number have strong vertical elements that are juxtaposed to the secondary horizontals created by the flat land where they sit. This gives O'Connell's photos the character of abstractions, even though they are also documentary pictures of industrial archaeology.

All of the O'Connells are untitled and are distinguished by numbers preceded by the letters "CE," which stand for "Conventional Entropy." This reveals O'Connell's idea that our reliance on oil is dysfunctional, increasingly so as time passes. Despite the ugliness of the objects O'Connell photographs, especially in the presence of the majestic sky and landscape, the photos themselves are undeniably beautiful.

In the middle spaces at Robischon is David Sharpe: Eastern Phenomena, made up of large shots of the eastern plains that are perfect companions to the O'Connells. Sharpe first came to Colorado from upstate New York in 1978 before leaving to attend grad school at Cranbrook. He returned permanently in 1984.

Eschewing the use of high-tech cameras, Sharpe focuses on primitive photographic processes — in particular, the pinhole method (though he does use computers to create the resulting prints). He makes his own cameras out of cylindrical containers (35 mm film canisters, as it happens) completely sealed save for a tiny aperture — the pinhole. The use of the pinhole technique means that the horizon line — as well as the line at the top of the shots — is curved, creating a fish-eye effect. And because of the low-tech approach, the details of the images are severely blurred. Together these features lend his pictures a decidedly abstract quality.

I've been a fan of Sharpe for a long time, but I like this series at least as much, if not more than, his past efforts. All of the works here are large-format pigment prints titled according to the series name, "Eastern Phenomena," and followed by a number.

The series picks up on Sharpe's earlier black-and-white work depicting the plains, but it adds color and a more narrative approach. One of the more recent pieces even includes images of figures — in this case, ranch hands — with others incorporating buildings and road signs. Sharpe has done some of these kinds of things before, but they seem new this time.

The last of the three shows is Edie Winograde: Place and Time. Winograde grew up in California but spent many years in New York, where she earned her MFA from the School of Visual Arts. After splitting time between the Big Apple and the Mile High City, she permanently relocated here early in 2009. The photos at Robischon represent selections from a series she's been working on for a decade. They were first seen locally last winter in a solo at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Winograde travels to sites of historic reenactments, including spots in Wyoming, Idaho and other places, where people, mostly men, dress up in period costumes and play-act according to loosely written scripts based on actual — or apocryphal — historic events. Then, using a slow shutter speed, she takes photos of the festivities, printing them out using computer technology. At first sight, they look like depictions of actual events instead of set pieces based on them. In one, a painted backdrop is discernible; in others, there are trucks and campers in the background. These incongruous elements put the perfect edge on the pieces.

The artifice and theatricality are part of the effect Winograde achieves, but her photos also typically incorporate the surrounding scenery ordinarily associated with traditional landscape photos. It's the West — and in one case, the East — postmodern style. The results are amazing and compelling, leaving viewers to wonder how she did them.

These three shows are tremendously good, individually and in concert. And the local quality at Robischon makes them even better.

When I checked out these shows a few weeks ago, I accidentally learned something I wasn't supposed to know. After walking through the gallery, I stopped into the office and saw the unmistakable image of a Dale Chisman painting on a computer screen. I knew that a number of dealers had been vying for the honor of winding up with the late artists's pieces. "So," I said to Jim Robischon, "you scored the Chisman estate, eh?"

Robischon got a pained look on his face and did a song and dance about being in negotiation with Chisman's daughter, Rebecca Chisman Jorgensen, and claimed that nothing had been finalized yet. "Come on, give me a break," I said.

But two weeks ago, the gallery publicly announced the arrangement, with a show planned for this coming January. I also learned that Z Art Department is going to present a Chisman exhibit at the same time with work from the secondary market.

If this weren't enough, a retrospective of Chisman's career is being put together for January at Metro State's Center for Visual Art. I spoke with CVA director Jennifer Garner about it, and she asked me to announce it and to ask my readers to contact her if they have work by Chisman or know where pieces are. Call Garner at 303-294-5207.

All of this is good news for the city's art lovers and for anyone who'd like to see the great Dale Chisman remembered the way he should be.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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