Analysis: FAC summer show not to be missed

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2003

Stephen Batura’s Overlook from 2016 is also part of the exhibit.

Think things are quiet at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center?

Think exiting curator Blake Milteer is quietly moving to Scotland, leaving vacant galleries sprinkled with a few randomly selected works from the permanent collection? Think that Joy Armstrong, his successor and curatorial co-conspirator at the FAC, is just sitting around making vague plans for the future?

Think again.

Today, the Fine Arts Center will open four summer shows. All are worth seeing, and two are somewhere between superb and amazing.

All New Women

Start with “All New Women,” Armstrong’s juxtaposition of portraits of women by John Singer Sargent, Cindy Sherman, Lyle Ashton Harris and Sara Howsam. The common theme: strong, capable women.

Pairing Sargent’s insightful portraits of powerful 19th century philanthropists, feminists and change agents with Sherman’s unsettling self-portraits is an interesting, unlikely conceit. Sargent painted hundreds of commissioned portraits, many collaborations between artist and subject. If you were a “woman of a certain age,” Sargent well understood what you wanted — and sometimes altered his work to meet clients’ needs.

We’re used to seeing the FAC’s transcendent “Portrait of Elsie Palmer,” but that masterpiece is more interesting when displayed alongside five other Sargent portraits.

Unlike many of his male contemporaries, Sargent delighted in the company of women. He could paint luminous, flattering pictures of young women, but he had a sympathetic, even worshipful understanding of powerful middle-aged women.

Consider his 1904 “Portrait of Mary Elizabeth Garrett.” It shows a gentle, grandmotherly woman wearing round spectacles, adorned with lace and holding a bouquet of roses. It’s a flattering image — but its first iteration may have been very different.

“At a point when the portrait was nearly completed,” wrote Johns Hopkins archivist Nancy McCall in 2001, “she and [her friend] M. Carey Thomas expressed their displeasure to Sargent, saying that he had made her look too dour. After a shopping expedition, they returned with an elegant white shawl, kid gloves and a bouquet of red roses, saying that these items were needed to brighten the painting. Sargent deferred to their wishes and added these sparkling bits of femininity to the portrait.”

Dour or not, Garrett was one of the greatest coercive philanthropists in American history. Aided by a formidable group of wealthy feminists, she provided $500,000 to open the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — with a couple of conditions that revolutionized American medicine.

She insisted that women be admitted to the school on equal terms as men and be equally eligible for “all prizes, dignities or honors that are awarded by competitive examination, or regarded as rewards of merit”; and that it be exclusively a four-year graduate school leading to the degree of doctor of medicine.”

“This is it — this show, and that’s enough.” 

— Stephen Batura

Sargent’s 1890 portrait of Annie Adams Fields is both severe and romantic. Almost forgotten today, Fields was a highly influential Boston author, editor and biographer. Born in 1834, she apparently knew everyone.

“Think what it is to know someone who invited to her table Emerson, Holmes, Hawthorne, Howells, James Russell Lowell,” Willa Cather wrote after meeting Fields in 1908, “and who remembers and quotes what they said there!”

Fields didn’t commission the portrait — it was a gift from the artist to his 56-year-old friend. Sargent didn’t include lace gloves or roses. It’s unsentimental and beautiful, a meditation upon age, character, intelligence and will.

Sherman has only one subject: herself. For decades, she has created striking large-format self-portraits in dozens of roles. Armstrong rightly characterizes her as “one of the most important living artists in the United States … one whose work has taken photography to new and fascinating places.”

And speaking of powerful women, don’t miss Sara Howsam’s affectionate series of portraits of significant Colorado Springs women past and present, starting with Julie Penrose and Betty Hare. Women of the present aren’t named, but you’ll recognize many. The Bookseller, the Gallerist, the Entrepreneur, the Teacher … expect to see some of them at the show’s opening tonight.

The Denver Art Museum loaned the portrait of Cicely Horner.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman’s 2008 Chromogenic color print “untitled #474” is unsettling and difficult, particularly if you’re unacquainted with the scale and complexity of her work. In it, Sherman depicts herself as an aging society woman, carefully coiffed and made up, at home in a confined corner space with small black and white portraits hung behind her. It’s all invented — space, clothes, woman, context. Sherman is a shape-shifter, a gender manipulator and an image disruptor — and started even before digital technology. She invented an entirely new art form, won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 and has influenced the way we see and experience the world more than any living artist. Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel — they’re Cindy’s bitches, as are we all.

Stephen Batura

Denver artist Stephen Batura’s one-man show, “A Reservoir of Occurrences” sprawls through two galleries and a long hallway. It’s the culmination of a decade-long conversation between Batura and Blake Milteer.

“We started talking about it when I was at the Denver Art Museum,” said Milteer, “and we finally put it together.”

In 2001, Batura discovered a strange trove of early 20th century photographs at the Denver Public Library.

“There were about 3,000 of them,” he said, “glass-plate negatives that some one had dropped off years before. The photographer was Charles Lillybridge, a guy who wandered around Denver taking pictures, apparently very randomly. They didn’t seem to be composed, or posed — just point and shoot. They’re street scenes, construction sites, old buildings with piles of junk in front of them, just whatever this strange obscure guy was looking at.”

Batura decided to use the images as the basis for a series of paintings.

“I’ve never actually seen the photographs,” he said. “I just worked from digitized images with about 80 percent resolution.”

As observed, the images were elusive, strange and mysterious. Batura consistently captures and magnifies that mystery, transforming Lillybridge’s pedestrian photos into paintings. Working with a limited, sometimes monochromatic palette, Batura has created an amazing body of work.

Take a look at “Cattle Auction,” a 5-by-8-foot painting of scores of men in hats viewing dark, amorphous shapes at the center of the image. Absent the title, you’d have no idea what was happening — they might as well be 19th century Californians looking at creatures emerging from the La Brea tar pits.

Batura isn’t always so helpful with his titles. “Overlook” seems to show a group of well-dressed men, women and children standing next to a stream, intently watching … what? It’s not clear — the stream may not be a stream, the image is deracinated and decontextualized, so the only story is the one that you tell yourself.

Scores of Batura’s works are on display at the FAC, but represent only a tiny fraction of the Lillybridge project.

“In 15 years I’ve done about 1,700 pieces so far from the 3,000 images,” said Batura.

When does he expect to finish?

“Now!” said Batura playfully, smiling at Milteer. “This is it — this show, and that’s enough.”

Other shows

“A Reservoir of Occurrences” and “All New Women” would have satisfied most curators, but Milteer and Armstrong have put together two more shows.

“Under the Big Top” features pieces from the FAC’s collection, including Walt Kuhn’s masterful “Clowns” and works by Adolph Dehn, Lew Tilley and Edgar Britton. Images by Cindy Sherman and Marc Chagall add interest and excitement to an exhibition that, as you might imagine, is cheerful and kid-friendly.

Finally, 28 images based on watercolors created by Salvador Dali to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Dante’s birth are on display. These laboriously created color wood engravings were originally bound in six-volume sets of the Divine Comedy published in Paris during 1960 by Les Heures Claires. Dali supervised the execution of the woodcuts, which required years of work by skilled wood engravers.

The images are strikingly beautiful and, unlike many photomechanical pastiches that have been passed off as Dali’s work in past decades, authentically the work of the master. He published about 10,000 sets, after which the 3,500 woodblocks used to create the images were destroyed.

To end, some advice: Don’t try to absorb all four shows at once. That’d be the artistic equivalent of binge-watching an entire season of Breaking Bad — so take your time.