Two young stars of the art world are on display this month in Denver

So many young artists — those in their twenties and thirties — come out of colleges, universities and art schools every year that they often have trouble getting noticed.

Nowhere is this situation more pronounced than in China, where seemingly a million students have, upon graduation, become internationally famous. Even among this large group, however, is one that stood out to Robischon Gallery directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran, and he's the subject of an in-depth solo, Chi Peng: New Large Scale.

Chi Peng was born in 1981 in Yantai, graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2005 with a specialty in digital photography. Even before he left school, his work was being exhibited internationally. Chi Peng first gained fame with magic-realist photos of himself streaking through the streets of Beijing; he used Photoshop to insert images on top of underlying landscapes and cityscapes. The new photos at Robischon come from two recent series: "Mood Is Never Better Than Memory," done earlier this year, and "Catcher in the Rye," from a few years ago. In the former, bird-like flocks fill the sky in discrete shapes above open water; in the latter, children are inserted into a rye field. In another group, sprites in the form of winged figures fly above cities and the landscape.

There is a decidedly monumental quality to these Chi Pengs, not only because they are done in such large formats, but because the subject matter is so expansive: the limitless sea, the vast fields, the huge city.

Something that I always think about when looking at Chinese photography is what a new medium it is for artists there. Before the 1990s, there was virtually no photography of any kind in China other than court and, later, state photography; unlike here, ordinary people did not have access to cameras. This means that the Chinese only started using cameras in any numbers after the rise of digital technology. Film-based photography — the method most American and European photographers were grounded in — was already gone. I believe this gave the Chinese a head start in the field because they didn't need to unlearn anything, the way photographers here did.

As a response to this show, Doran has conjured up another exhibit as well. Since Chi Peng is under thirty, Doran assembled a group effort dedicated to young artists. Wanting to have a little fun at the holidays, she dubbed it EYTJ (Even Younger Than Jesus) and invited a range of artists under 33, the age at which Christ was crucified. It's interesting to note that while some of the artists are from Colorado and others hail from elsewhere, many studied at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Lakewood.

As you'd imagine, there's a lot of digital content in EYTJ, including photos and videos. That's the case with the most famous of the emerging artists in the show, New Yorker William Lamson, who is represented by a two-channel video projection titled "A Line Describing the Sun." Lamson has recorded a performance in which, using a mobile lens to magnify the sun's light onto the surface of a dry lake bed, he has inscribed a permanent line on the earth. The reflected rays reach a temperature of 1,600 degrees, turning the soil into glass. Light, glass and the desert — shades of James Turrell!

Not far from the Lamson is another video projection, "The Flower of Life, Collapsing Hologram," by Colorado artist Sterling Crispin. In it, circles of recognizable images are overlapped in such a way that they suggest a flower shape on the wall.

Several artists here are working in digital prints, including Noah Manos, a Denver artist. In each of the four images from his "Burned Voids," Manos inserts a circular black form anchoring the center of a mundane outdoor view. As abstract as they appear, the pieces have conceptual content that conveys a narrative of despair or desperation. Also walking on the dark side are the somewhat creepy color photos of what look like characters in a murder mystery by Christine Buchsbaum from Denver. New York's Letha Wilson employs blue-tinted photos as elements in wall-mounted sculptures. They're very neat, and all of them have Colorado subjects.

One of the most unusual uses of digital photography is seen in Zach Burk's "Gemini No. 1: Walter," a portrait of a friend paired with a panel of colored pompoms. For Burk, who lives in Denver, the pompoms have both an ecclesiastical meaning and one that refers to a cheesy craft device.

In the non-digital realms, there's a bit of sculpture, including the marvelous post-minimal wall-relief pieces by Denver's Derrick Velasquez. Done in layers of colored vinyl laid over pine boards attached to the wall, the two works refer simultaneously to striped paintings of the '60s and '70s and fiber works of the same period.

When I first saw "Preservation Home," by Denver's Brandon Bultman, I thought of Rachel Whiteread — the two-part sculpture depicts a house, after all. That house, in a shiny Lego green, has been cut in half, with each part displayed in its own showcase. But I spoke with Bultman about it, and he gave a more prosaic explanation that had nothing to do with Whiteread. Bultman's parents got divorced when he was a kid. And that incredibly saturated green color? It was inspired by Nickelodeon, which is known for its generous use of green slime.

With all the out-there work in this show, it's interesting to notice how the meticulously rendered figure drawings by Denver's Ian Fisher don't look the least bit old-fashioned. In his series of charcoal-on-paper pieces, Fisher has done almost photographically detailed renditions of middle-aged men, who all look like interesting characters.

The traditional representational approach taken by Fisher is also seen in Isca Greenfield-Sanders and Stephen Batura, an addendum to the Chi Peng and EYTJ shows. Denverite Batura is a bit long in the tooth to play the part of a kid, but he was chosen to have his work play off that of New York's Greenfield-Sanders, who is a relative youngster. The two share a conceptual underpinning, one that he's been mining for decades and she just came upon: Both use found photographs as the origins of their pictures, with Batura exploring photo archives and Greenfield-Sanders looking at amateur photos from the recent past. Despite the ideological similarities, the works of each are distinct. The Baturas have a narrative content with a historical gloss, and they actually look old, while Greenfield-Sanders is doing something different: She's interested in the art of identity as it relates to affluent white suburbanites.

Greenfield-Sanders, who is 32, is a rising art star, and in honor of that status, she's not only included in the Robischon salute to young artists, but she's also the subject of a major solo at MCA Denver. Isca Greenfield-Sanders: Light Leaks, in the David & Laura Merage Foundation Gallery, examines a nice group of recent photo/painting hybrids using overexposed snapshots of people at leisure as their starting points. The show, the first museum presentation for Greenfield-Sanders, was put together by MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams, who has written the accompanying catalogue.

The conceptual program she's adopted calls for Greenfield-Sanders to seek out photos at thrift stores and garage sales that are technical failures and depict mundane sights — so it's interesting to notice that the resulting pieces are conventionally beautiful. In the gallery, there's a blue/green aura created by the colors of the skies that predominate in many of the works. As I made my way through the show, I couldn't help but think of the mid-century paintings of upper-middle-class people by Fairfield Porter. I know his aims were completely different from those of Greenfield-Sanders, but she also seems to be capturing a life well lived, despite the blemishes in the images.

The art world puts a premium on the new because, truth be told, it's something of a cad — with one eye on its companion and the other on the door, hoping not to miss something younger and prettier coming through it. For art, though, this seemingly ignoble quest for the next better thing is a key to its future, because without more kids joining the scene, it's doomed.

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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