Robischon Gallery has long held a lock on big money art in Denver. In a city this size, there’s room for only one major contemporary art player and Robischon has capitalized on its position at the top, assembling an unbeatable roster of near and far talent that has kept the momentum going for more than three decades.
Robischon is where the money is, it sells art at serious prices, and that means it gets first dibs at the most commercially interesting artists in Denver, as well as internationally famous outsiders, such as Kiki Smith, Christo and Ann Hamilton, who want a regional retailer to rep their work.
But Robischon has always, at the same time, been socially responsible to its hometown. It gives back by presenting Denver with the most consistently fascinating private gallery exhibits around. Robischon fills its space with fun and fascinating work as a rule, even when that work isn’t an easy sell.
The current four-artist show is a good example of why folks should always stop into Robischon for a look. Powered by John Buck’s hyper-political, oversized, kinetic sculptures, it’s a thrill to wander through. It’s also all those things you want a group exhibit to be: thoughtful, adventurous, energizing, puzzling and, for sure, a bit uneven; a mix of artists who have reached their market potential and others who are heading there with Robischon’s guidance.
Buck leads the pack, and the exhibit itself, with a handful of large-scale pieces in the front room of Robischon’s 9,000 square-foot headquarters in Lower Downtown. He’s a woodcarver really, a folk artist who works in simple materials, but also a mad inventor, assembling his carefully shaped bits of soft wood into complicated machines.
Viewers activate them, which is a blast. Step on a floor switch and suddenly things start to crank and turn and swirl, powered by old-school tech, like simple electricity and interlocking gears. They are reminiscent of children’s toys — firetrucks, toy soldiers and wagons — in the days before video games took over the imagination.
Their sentiments, however, are decidedly contemporary and perhaps a bit controversial. This exhibit’s signature piece, “The March of Folly,” is a parody of the odd relationships between news-friendly figures, like Donald Trump, Kim Jung-un, Vladimir Putin, Dennis Rodman and Stormy Daniels. These characters march in a dynamic parade of international, ego-driven excess, each looking more ridiculous than the other and underscoring the absurdity of 21st century global politics. References to mythology, Greek history and Russian architecture put things in a broad perspective.
A second notable piece, “The Mother of All Wars,” has a darker edge, with a Trump-like figure, on a tank, leading an ominous military parade. Step on the switch and tiny soldiers outfitted with gas masks go on the march, and a rather large bomb, saddled by a hat-waving cowboy, “Dr. Strangelove”-style, hurdles toward earth.
Buck’s work is full of over-simplified messages and quick-hit commentary on current events. It’s punditry really, just like on cable news, only in three-dimensional form and delivered via an art gallery instead of TV.But it’s surprisingly effective. First. because of its wildly sensational, motion-based form — it’s impossible not to pay attention and try to decipher what it is saying — and second, because it uses an out-of-date medium (who whittles anymore?) to comment on information that’s shockingly of-the-moment.That blend of old techniques and and new ideas defines the overall exhibit at Robischon.
All of the artists tap into some folk art tradition and update it.In a back gallery space, artist Walter Robinson uses materials like leather, rhinestones, canvas, stuffed toys and zebra skin to create objects that get at the underlaying uncertainty of a world awash in both nostalgia and an endless stream of new images and information. In one piece, a single leg, dressed in striped, prison pants and wearing an ice skate, appears to come right through the wall from another room, raising ominous questions about how it got there and what resides on the other side of the wall. Next to that is an artificial snowman, laying on his back and grasping a bottle of some mysterious liquid. In the middle of the room, are two hand-crafted jackets set on mannequins, adorned with leather lace-up straps and found logo patches.
There’s something surreal to all of it, but also something familiar. There’s a hint of Americana in his snowman and ice skates and leather jackets, but it all feels uncontrollable and little bit dangerous.
In another room, artist Fred Stonehouse presents his small, acrylic paintings in recognizable forms, they resemble the framed, perspective-free, religious works found in churches and other sacred places from pre-Renaissance Europe to colonial Latin America. There’s an antique innocence to them.
But their imagery updates the pieces to our era of self-aware psychology, horror films and political stupidity. He uses text and images of half-human, half-beast beings to illustrate ideas like “The Hypnotic Lure of Faith” and “The Illusion of Emotion.” They are loaded with nervous anxiety and, at the same time, a knowing calm. If we are, indeed, weird, gullible creatures, then that is our nature. We are an inescapably, eternally screwed-up species.
The fourth artist in the show is Paco Pomet, a Spanish artist making his debut at Robischon. and whose work is connected to the past though his use of vintage photographs as source material.
Pomet recreates in oil paint old-time scenes — a cabin in the woods, a truss bridge spanning an underdeveloped waterfront. But he adds startling doses of brilliant colors that inject fantastical qualities into the scenery, completely interrupting their rustic nature. The cabin is sheathed in a cool purple. the water under that bridge is a shiny, yellow gold.
This technique is most effective when it remains abstract. Why purple? Why gold? Those wild colors transfix viewers. But his colorful modifications are less interesting when they become more obvious. His inserted text over a 19th century portrait of three gentlemen isn’t so funny, his addition of “Star Wars” light sabers into a picture of pre-industrial miners feels immature and a play to the Gen X crowd. Still, it’s all entertaining. And it’s good to see Robischon taking an international view of contemporary art.
This is what Robischon does best, mix and match its artists in a way that makes you see what they have in common and what sets them apart. In this particular case, it’s also an opportunity to see how far a trip down memory lane can take you into the future. Is all this work a look back or a look forward? It’s both of those things, and a very clear view of art as it stands in the present.