Curator Cortney Lane Stell had a lot to work with when assembling “Carey Fisher,” the two-person exhibition currently at Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center — more than the opportunity to give the show the kind of high-camp title that would get people’s attention.
The two artists in the exhibition, Beau Carey and Ian Fisher, are among the region’s most prolific and popular painters and it is a chuckle that their names combined recall the late actress Carrie Fisher, whose pinwheel hairdo helped make “Star Wars” the most recognized Hollywood film of all time.
Stell also had a venue that anyone who has paid a minute of attention to Denver’s visual art scene for the past 15 years knows well and appreciates deeply. The non-profit center, which grooms professional artists by giving out acres of free studio space and volumes of career coaching, is as cherished and familiar locally as Princess Leia might be globally.
Stell could have produced a spectacle exploiting RedLine’s built-in audiences, along with the large-scale, colorful landscapes of mountains and skies that Carey and Fisher are known for, to create a local-level blockbuster that might have competed with anything at the Denver Art Museum during the holiday season. That is certainly what I was expecting, knowing the places and players involved.
But Stell went another way, guiding herself with confidence and restraint. She kept the number of paintings on the low side and left plenty of space in between them. She resisted the impulse to fill RedLine’s endless white-cube walls with the artists’ bigger paintings, a move that would have given the exhibition the sort of sensory explosion that gallery-goers crave. There are times, wandering through this show, that you wonder if it is even fully installed; it is that sparse.
But the effect was to make a show where each painting feels essential and worthy of consideration, and where the technique of painting — the choices artists make about what they want to capture and what they hope we will see — takes precedence over the subject matter. These are landscape works, depicting dynamic mountain ranges and dramatic clouds floating in the air, but the way they are arranged puts the emphasis on how artists use fluid materials to create solid objects. The artist’s hand is the star of this show.
It was a bold choice, and one that both Carey and Fisher deserve. They are both thoughtful painters. But equally, it is a reminder of how important curating itself is as an art form. This exercise is humbled so deliberately, and deftly, by Stell’s sensibilities that “Carey Fisher” actually feels like a three-person show.
Oh, it’s still a big event in its way. This is a landscape painting show in a city and state where this artistic genre is as much part of local culture as the landscape itself, and these artists are two of its standard bearers in our age — though both practice it with a contemporary edge that challenges its traditions. Many of these paintings were created specifically for this outing.
The work is, at times, awe-inspiring, especially Fisher’s “Atmosphere No. 157 (Influence),” which presents a rush of white cloud forms against a deep blue sky. At a whopping 17 feet long and 8 feet high, it is the largest work Fisher has ever made.
The “moment” for Carey happens on the very back wall of the gallery where two of his mountain paintings, each 5 feet square, are hung side-by-side. Both paintings are dominated by a brilliant sunset orange (or sunrise orange; you can never really tell with Carey) but they each have their own distinct personality and there is enough floor space that a viewer can get very far back looking at them. They are grand vistas, and it is gratifying to be able to see them without any distractions.
And RedLine itself, such a well-known physical space after the scores of shows it has presented, is transformed in new ways. The main gallery is basically a single, large room, but Stell arranged its movable walls to create a sort of room within the center of the room where she placed just two of Carey’s pieces. It has the aura of a small chapel with a small bench to rest upon while looking at the works.
That move, and the sharp editing of the show’s contents, keep “Carey Fisher” from getting too big and overblown. It’s a quiet outing despite itself.
And it is a chance to think about how painters work in the current age, when sensory capture is more important than physical representation.
Carey and Fisher’s styles are in opposition. Fisher’s clouds are photographic, up-close, romantic. Carey’s mountains are abstract, distant and cerebral. Seeing them in the same exhibit illustrates, in short order, the variety of landscape painting today.
But it also shows where it overlaps. Both artists take the sort of liberties that are common now and each plays openly with ways of Western landscape painting that date back to its golden age in the 1800s. They don’t attempt to be precise like Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran; or journalistic like George Catlin; or to capture a zeitgeist like Frederic Remington.
Instead, they deal in fictions, painting from photos but adjusting the details as it suits them, or combining various vistas into one view, or mixing time, place and space. They are very much 21st-century humans: remixers, cut-and-pasters, Photoshoppers, image-makers, global villagers. Fundamental to each artist’s work is an ongoing challenge to the idea of the horizon line, the basic painter’s trick that helps viewers orient themselves in a scene. They hope you will get lost in the looking.
You do. And that forces your attention off the geography depicted on the canvas and onto how it feels to co-exist with our planet — for as long as that relationship will last in an era of climate change.
In that way, “Carey Fisher” accomplishes a lot with a little. It’s a strange thing, really, to think of this show, with its imposing planetary views, as humble, but it is. That is the best thing about it.
If you go
“Carey Fisher” continues through Jan. 8 at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, 2350 Arapahoe St. Info: 303-296-4448 or redlineart.org.
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