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Over the past few decades, the contemporary-art world has gotten so vast that no single approach can characterize our era in the way that abstract expressionism represents the '50s or pop art evokes the '60s. Now, just about anything goes, as long as it isn't of the Bob Ross/ Thomas Kinkade stripe. On one pole is conceptual art, like narrative and non-narrative DVDs and videos, and on the other end is contemporary realism, which is the heir to a tradition dating back to cave paintings.

In a way, I was confronted by this radical juxtaposition of extremes when I was in the Robischon Gallery a few days ago. As I was taking in Karen Kitchel's excellent series of realist paintings in her current solo, Karen Kitchel: East Meets West, an electrical technician came in to scope out the future installation of a video projector and screen to be placed in the front window so that images can be shown on the outside when the gallery is closed.

It'll be neat, I'm sure, but the idea of an indoor/outdoor video screen strikes me as a commercial no-go, so I hope the gallery got some kind of financial help to do it. Plus, I'm unclear as to why gallery director Jim Robischon, who claims credit for the idea, would want to attract the attention of LoDo club-crawlers. Then again, the lighted screen may have the bonus of encouraging those who are given to public urination the urge to move to a darker spot down the block -- and for that benefit alone, any expense is justifiable.

Though technically speaking there's nothing conceptual in the individual Kitchel paintings, taken together they do have a conceptual component. The paintings describe, in an almost scientific way, the natural environment of Promontory Pass, Utah. This obscure and mostly uninhabited place became famous when, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven into the connecting point between the train tracks being built from the east by Union Pacific and from the west by Central Pacific. The golden spike symbolized the creation of the first American transcontinental railroad.

Kitchel has used the railroad as a conceptual link for her realist paintings before. A couple of seasons ago, she showed Train Track Walk, also at Robischon, in which the viewer was able to metaphorically travel through the four seasons by way of 96 small panels illustrating the life cycle of weeds growing along the tracks in the Platte Valley. The small paintings in East Meets West are a direct outgrowth of this earlier work, which was recently acquired in its entirety by the U.S. State Department's Art in Embassies program.

Kitchel was born in Michigan in 1957 and received her bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College in 1979. She came West soon afterward, earning an MFA in painting in 1982 from Claremont Graduate University in California. She lived in Colorado in the late '90s, but about a year ago she returned to the West Coast, which is our loss, as East Meets West demonstrates.

The panels depicting the sweeping views are the anchor pieces in the show, especially considering the way the paintings were installed at Robischon. The pair of spaces that flank the front entrance boast two large horizontal landscapes, each of which is bracketed by a pair of related smaller ones. In the space to the right is "Dawn at Big Fill," and in the space to the left is "Facing East," both of which were done -- as was everything in the show -- in oil on thick birch boards.

Unlike most of the other landscapes in the exhibit, "Dawn at Big Fill" has the illusion of an immediate foreground and a receding, seemingly infinite background. Kitchel placed the foreground right against the picture plane and created the detailed illustration of grasses that are arrayed along the bottom. The contrast between the nearness of the grasses and the distance of the horizon is underscored by the fact that Kitchel used different painting styles to convey these two opposite aspects. The grasses have a near-photographic accuracy, but the unfolding landscape behind them has been simplified and abstracted. This is a rare example of a Kitchel that combines both styles, as most of the paintings in the show are either hyper-real or abstracted.

The extreme foreground device seen in "Dawn at Big Fill" directly plugs this painting into Kitchel's detailed paintings of plants, which are made up completely of foreground. A group of these, collectively titled "Promontory" and numbered one through eight, have been hung in a row adjacent to "Dawn at Big Fill," and they remind me a lot of the Train Track Walk paintings. On small squares of wood, Kitchel paints the grasses, weeds and wildflowers of the pass. The plants fill the panels to overflowing, suggesting that the scenes in them go on and on, at least in our mind's eyes. The compositions are invariably balanced through asymmetrical harmonies.

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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

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