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The American frontier of the nineteenth century was a bonanza for both nature-loving romantics and the pragmatic forces of manifest destiny. And at the nexus of these two very different groups were the artists who recorded it all firsthand as members of the four major survey parties sent to map...
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The American frontier of the nineteenth century was a bonanza for both nature-loving romantics and the pragmatic forces of manifest destiny. And at the nexus of these two very different groups were the artists who recorded it all firsthand as members of the four major survey parties sent to map out the American West between 1867 and 1879. These artists sought on the one hand to accurately portray what they were seeing; on the other, they couldn't help but be awestruck by the majesty of the sights.

The artifacts the artists left behind are the topic of Surveying the West: Stupendous and Remarkable Manifestations, at Metro State College's Center for the Visual Arts. The show, organized by center director Sally Perisho, brings together approximately ninety relevant artifacts, including paintings, drawings, notebooks, maps, prints, photographs and even some survey equipment. Perisho borrowed material from a variety of public repositories, among them the Colorado History Museum and the Denver Public Library, as well as the U.S. Geological Survey Library and the National Archives.

Many of the articles in the show have rarely been exhibited before. That's surely the case with the exquisite 1875 painting "Bridal Veil Falls," by East Coast artist Albert Bierstadt; it's owned by the DPL, but I've never seen it displayed anywhere. Among the many prominent artists who accompanied the surveyors out West, none was as highly regarded as Bierstadt, and it's easy to see why. His bucolic scene of a waterfall is conveyed in virtually operatic tones--the bent trees, the rushing waters and the rocky crags are all imbued with a sense of visual drama.

That same high pitch resonates in a Bierstadt engraving from 1897 titled "Last of the Buffalo." This print, based on one of Bierstadt's paintings, is a romantic rendering of an Indian on horseback hunting at the edge of a herd. In a marvelous touch, buffalo fill the background to the horizon.

Of particular interest to Denverites is the wonderful scene depicted in Jules Tavernier's circa 1874 watercolor, "Denver From Highlands." Tavernier, who was born in Paris, undertook a sketching tour of the West from 1873 to 1876 with fellow illustrator Paul Frenzeny at the behest of the then-popular Harper's Weekly magazine. The Denver of the time was a little town in the shadow of the Rockies. In the foreground is a picnic scene in which well-dressed Victorians sit among the wildflowers. Big-city conveniences, like the horse-drawn trolley at the edge of town, can already be seen, but there is also a premonition of our future troubles: Chimneys are pouring out what looks like too much smoke.

Another nationally renowned artist who came to the frontier was Thomas Moran. The 1895 watercolor "First Night's Camp on the Mountain," which renders its scene in terms of the play of natural light, is another standout in the Metro show. It was Moran's diary entry on first seeing Yellowstone in 1871 that provided the "stupendous and remarkable manifestations" reference in the exhibit's title.

A weakness in the show is the inclusion of photographically produced facsimiles of prints and newly made photographs taken off of old negatives. As examples, all of the Timothy O'Sullivan photographs and many of those by William Henry Jackson are seen in contemporary albumen prints. The inclusion of new objects among period pieces may bother only purists--but then, isn't that precisely who this exhibit is aimed at?

For the historically correct, it is a comfort to turn to Prints of the American West, a show at Masten Fine Art conceived to complement the Metro offering. Nothing but old material has been included in this exhibit curated by Tam O'Neill, a dealer knowledgeable in the field of nineteenth-century printmaking. It's a much smaller display, and as the title indicates, it's limited to prints--and not, for the most part, fine-art prints. Rather, the works shown here are the products of various nineteenth-century commercial techniques. It might be correct to say that these prints were the photographs of their day--except for the fact that photographs were already around.

That artists can still find inspiration today in mountain scenery is clearly demonstrated by Four Views: Landscapes of the West, at 1/1 Gallery. Put together by gallery director Bill Havu, the show compares and contrasts four contemporary painters who use the landscape as their principal subject--Merrill Mahaffey, Bob Thomas, Jeremy Hillhouse and David Foley.

The well-known Mahaffey employs tightly placed linear brush strokes--hundreds of them--to create nearly photographic depictions of Colorado mountain scenes. His surfaces in these watercolors and oil paintings are lively, the result of Mahaffey's expert approach, which features clearly distinguishable daubs of paint. And his use of color is highly sophisticated, with complex tones of various hues brought together to create the pink of bare granite or the purple of the mountains' majesty.

Like Mahaffey, Thomas also takes a painterly approach in his portrayals of the natural world, though in his case, the subject is not so much the landscape as it is the sky. Unfortunately, one aspect of Thomas's presentation lends to these otherwise dignified works an inappropriately decorative quality: the painted borders that serve as frames. A painter with the obvious technical skill and vision of Thomas--whose canvases, like Mahaffey's, are jam-packed with confidently placed brush strokes--should dispense with such a dated gimmick.

Hillhouse does something entirely different. Instead of depicting actual scenes from nature, Hillhouse uses trees--mostly bare ones--as a device to convey psychological states. The mural-sized, five-panel painting "Neighborhood Trees" projects a sense of emptiness and despair. Four of the panels feature a bare tree against a white background; the fifth, set among the others, reveals an evergreen against a roughly naturalistic sky of blue. This most ambitious of the Hillhouse works isn't easy to understand--but it's appealing nonetheless.

Foley takes a thoroughly original approach, putting a clever twist on the drip technique immortalized by Jackson Pollock. Instead of creating abstract expressionist paintings as Pollock did, Foley uses the method to make representational pictures. His woodland scenes and creekside views feature toned-up colors used in inspired combinations--fire-engine red against a golden chartreuse, for example.

Another show, this one at the Emmanuel Gallery, provides a contemporary take on the local landscape tradition. In the exhibit The American West: Land's Will or Man's Will?, selections from Chuck Forsman's national traveling exhibit Arrested Rivers are paired with some very recent work by Scott Greenig. Forsman and Greenig are both highly regarded Colorado artists, and they have something else in common: an environmental activism that they express through their paintings.

The title of Arrested Rivers refers to dams, but it's not clear whether the dams pictured in Forsman's beautifully detailed oil-on-masonite paintings actually exist or if they are purely the product of artistic license. In either case, Forsman's message is obvious--throughout his paintings are scars in the form of dams.

Forsman's "Wet Dream" is filled with roads, parking lots, tire tracks and quarry cuts--a literal rape of the environment. Perhaps even more biting because it's so witty is "Lizard," made up almost entirely of an incongruous dam looming in the middle of the desert. There's even a gigantic sign written across the structure's barren concrete face: "Keep Your Forests Green." In "Feather River," even our view has been limited by a dam, which prevents the scene from being a panorama.

Many of the same concerns occupy Greenig. The oil-on-panel "West vs. East" is a photo-realist rendition of a coyote caught in a leg trap. Next to the painting, the leg trap itself hangs from the gallery wall. Another piece combining a painting with a found object is "West Series #4," in which a painting of a rock formation is paired with a panel of the same size made of asphalt and crushed bottle caps.

Interestingly enough, Forsman and Greenig bring our thoughts back to the traditional landscape artists of the Metro show. The artists who accompanied the early surveyors played an essential role in encouraging the settlers who would later exploit the natural wealth of our region--and whose spiritual heirs are the unseen villains in the paintings of Forsman and Greenig.

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