Dale Chisman is an exceptional figure in Denver's art world, not simply because he's one of the region's most talented abstract painters, but also because he's been at it, day after day, for more than forty years. What makes this kind of commitment remarkable is how rare it is. In truth, only a relatively select group of talents in Denver are — or, in the case of the younger ones, wind up being — artists for the rest of their lives.
The more typical path is as follows: an initial burst of energy and vision leading to a few years of interesting work, followed by the dawning of the reality that it's nearly impossible to make a living from art. Then the day job takes over, and creative pursuits fall by the wayside. I can't tell you how many emerging artists I've written about here who came and went, even some who achieved quite a bit of notoriety, many opportunities and tons of encouragement. Being an artist isn't for the faint of heart, I guess.
In addition to his pure survival, Chisman has also managed to keep his creations looking fresh and new, as is the case with the nearly twenty paintings done in 2007 and 2008 that make up Recent Paintings by Dale Chisman at Rule Gallery. The high-caliber work proves Chisman is still at the top of his game, despite recent health problems.
Chisman was born in Denver in 1943 and grew up in town, attending classes at North High School, where he studied under the late Martha Epp. He later took a course at the now-closed Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School given by the late, great Mary Chenoweth. Because of this education, Chisman represents a direct link back to the first generation of abstract artists in Colorado.
I've always seen a connection between Chisman and Chenoweth, in particular their related use of simple forms arranged on colored grounds. And like Chenoweth, Chisman has been able to go back to his well of creativity over and over again.
Chisman earned his BFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1965 and an MFA in 1969. During his undergraduate years, he also attended Yale University and, during graduate school, the Royal College of Art in London. He later moved to New York and developed his signature style, moving away from figurative and surrealistic imagery and toward non-objective abstraction. A number of fellow artists influenced him while he was there, notably Robert Rauschenberg, who just died last week. During this time, Chisman showed his work at the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery.
In 1984, Chisman moved back to Colorado, and although he'd been gone for more than a decade, he'd maintained many relationships here. He'd been part of that crowd of Boulder artists who'd moved down to Denver in the 1970s and had individually established themselves as some of the most important art-world players in the contemporary realm. This group includes John DeAndrea, Margaret Neumann and Clark Richert, all of whom are still part of the mix.
These art stars — and Chisman's formidable and undeniable talent — helped him become established among a wider audience. I met him through Martha Daniels, who had known him since the 1960s and who also had ties to New York and Boulder. I first saw Chisman's paintings in 1986 in a show at Pirate, which in those days was one of the most important venues in town believe it or not.
These latest pieces represent a few separate types, and aren't, strictly speaking, a single body of coherent work. But Chisman doesn't see it this way, viewing it as a single approach. "I was trying to be as open as possible to letting things happen unconsciously, and also to not get into a space where I felt constricted either by going back to my own earlier work or because of what was happening in painting today," he notes.
In describing what is different about these paintings, Chisman notes his juxtaposition of the flatness of classic abstract formalism to the atmospheric quality of traditional representational painting. "I dealt with space for many years when I was interested in the figure, but as I became more abstract, my work became flatter. Now, with these paintings, I'm reconciling the two. It's related to post-post-postmodern," he adds with a laugh.
The tension between the flat forms and the atmospheric grounds is seen throughout the show. Many of the paintings have a horizontal line that Chisman relates to the landscape. But that illusion is purely theoretical, and in many of the paintings, the line is violated, as in "Canción," thus preventing the idea of a vista from ever coming into view. Actually, the line does nothing more than divide the composition into top and bottom — or, in the case of "Rope Trick," in which the line is vertically oriented, left and right.
The lines aren't the only way Chisman builds a relationship between flatness and three-dimensionality. He also uses a vocabulary of shapes, some of which are very different from others, to achieve the same end. In "Tea With Tamayo," he has placed forms — in particular, an inverted letter "T" — at the edge of the painting, suggesting that the shapes have been placed on the picture plane, defining the surface of it. Then, other shapes, including another inverted letter T, seem to float beneath the surface, deep in space. "The two Ts lead your eye back and make you think you're looking into space," Chisman points out.
Among the other shapes Chisman conjures up are anthropomorphic blobs, which sometimes cast shadows. These blobs could be likened to the cartoon-inspired work by Phillip Guston done in the 1970s. "But you really can't go there; you can't be another Guston," Chisman says. "You have to do something with it that he didn't do. Doing different things — that's kind of important to me."
The blobs are one of a number of shapes that vaguely evoke the figure or things in nature, like the basket-weave forms in "Tamayo" and in several others that he calls "masks." But Chisman says he's not using them in a narrative way; he's simply solving the pictorial problems he lays out for himself.
The newest and arguably strangest of these automatist artistic devices is the pine-cone shape, or beehive, as Chisman describes it. The shape, which is curving and volumetric, is constructed of short, repetitive brushstrokes and has an airiness that relates to the "mask" forms. Chisman first came up with this shape for "Word" and brought it into its own in "Bee Balm," a complicated and spectacular painting.
Another thing worth mentioning is the unusual palette Chisman has developed. Though several of the paintings include or are dominated by a strong, orangey red, a color Chisman has long used, he's also conjured up an array of new shades that are odd and dusty pastel tones, some of which he came up with accidentally. The icy-green line in "Bee Balm," for example, happened when Chisman applied a thick coat of slate gray over the still-wet yellow he put on first, so his color-mixing winds up being as instinctual and uncontrolled as the forms he arranges across the picture.
I was knocked out when I first saw Recent Paintings, and liked it even better when I went back a few days later. Chisman isn't just one of the best painters working in the area; he stands with the greatest Colorado abstractionists of all time, like Vance Kirkland and Herbert Bayer.