Colorado native Topher Straus performed with a local children's group called Kidskits in the 1980s, and later appeared on TV in shorts for the Two Bits Club. He left the state to attend Syracuse University, where he studied film; after graduation, he went to the West Coast and later to New Zealand, to pursue a career behind the camera in video production and advertising.
Straus moved back to Denver in 2012, changing career directions to become a full-time visual artist, and started working in his studio. It was just last year that he had his first solo. Topher Straus: The Parks, at Niza Knoll Gallery, is his second.
The Parks comprises ten large pieces, each depicting an iconic image of a specific national park. Strauss has visited all the parks he’s depicted, but he does not use his own photos or sketches as preliminary studies. Instead, he finds and appropriates photos of his chosen landscape and scans them; then, using various programs including Photoshop, and a tablet and stylus, he follows the outlines of the selected scene loosely, as opposed to doing a careful tracing. He also computer color-matches the shades found in the original images, isolating single tones that he incorporates into his reformulated views. The colors are not placed where they are located in the original, but rather are freely associated in the reconfigured compositions. The digitized images on the monitor are printed onto transfer paper and applied to sheets of aluminum. The pictures are then finished off with transparent acrylic resin, creating a wet-looking surface.
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Given the high-tech methods and the semi-gloss surfaces, the result could be too slick and commercial, but the expressionistic handlings of the outlined forms prevents that. The landscapes are simplified and conventionalized abstractions of the views and have a retro cubist quality, along with a dash of Yellow Submarine. And although they are technically altered photos, they really look like paintings or, at the very least, collages, and that fights the slick factor, too.
In “Glacier National Park,” the mountain scene is reduced to a lineup of wavy bars in different colors held within larger shapes, to define the forest in the foreground, the mountains in the middle ground, and the sky in the background. The juxtaposition of the horizontality of the bottom to the verticality of the top stands in for perspective, and it actually works. This same approach is seen in all the pieces, which are very closely related to one another.
The Straus works superficially relate to contemporary art of the American West, but he has included parks from back east in the group, too. Topher Straus: The Parks runs through February 16 at Niza Knoll Gallery, 915 Santa Fe Drive. For more information, call 303-953-1789 or go to nizaknollgallery.com.