Western Art in America has seemingly changed little in over a century. Romanticized cowboys, portraits of Native Americans, and the persistent embrace of the sweeping Western landscape. While such paintings remain highly sought after and evoke nostalgia for the wild frontier, for painter and photographer Chuck Forsman, these images are relics of a dated tradition that has persisted beyond its relevance. Forsman is Westerner through and through: born in Idaho and raised in Oregon and Northern California, the Colorado resident taught painting at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1971 until 2008. He has been pioneering innovation in Western landscape painting for over forty years. His work challenges typical perceptions of landscape environments by shifting his subject matter from wild horses and the sublime, untamed earth to the reality of burgeoning infrastructure and the demystifying, ubiquitous presence of human enterprise.
Within the accessible and familiar structure of the landscape painting genre, Forsman positions the viewer intimately within the reality of the (d)evolving environmental spaces of the frontier, a position few are familiar with, and too many have already normalized in their conscious awareness of the natural world. Forsman’s work serves to shed a new, curious eye on the transformation of the earth. What could so easily lend itself to political axe grinding or didacticism is instead rendered in a cautious, painterly style that embodies a willingness to look, see, and bear witness with an eye for perspective, detail, and an aptitude for prescient premonitions.
In his current exhibition at Robischon Gallery, Markers, several of the artist’s large-scale paintings are exhibited along with examples of his recent foray into photography. The paintings depict quasi-imaginary vistas, but they are not conveyed as fantasies. Photorealistic stylization portrays these scenes in a deadpan, straightforward manner. Each panel is characterized by an observational nonchalance. Palettes range from neutral to cheery, often capturing the pristine natural light casting dramatic shadows on mountain façades and gleaming off of vehicles. Penchant for detail captures still frames with an anticlimactic gathering of activity: in Big Drop: Notes from the River’s Journal (pictured at top), the only activity in a barren canyon is a vulture taking flight.
Chuck Forsman, Sacred Cows, Oil on panel, 51 x 85 inches; Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Forsman’s paintings is his inclusion (or, implication) of the viewer in the act of observation. This is achieved through intimate foreground settings that hold space for the viewer as he gazes onto the epic backdrop. In Sacred Cows, a winding road switchbacks up canyon walls that have been terraced and fortified beyond recognition, transforming natural rock formations into orderly, geometric rows like dispirited pyramids. In the foreground, as though the viewer has simply pulled his car to the side of the road and stepped out, a vulture floats by below his feet, situating the viewer actively within the scene. In the midground, a lonely cow lays on a barren, well-trodden patch of dirt in the bend of a switchback. Seemingly trapped, the heifer stares directly at us, confronting and engaging with her onlookers. The painting highlights the contradictory nature of our access to the splendid imagery we have become so familiar with, whether in person or through art and lens: infrastructure gives access to appreciate nature, while simultaneously negatively affecting that which we’d like to appreciate. This theme is found throughout Forsman’s work and is exemplified in Sacred Cows.
In Big Drop: Notes from the River’s Journal, a dwindling river flows from a massive dam, dwarfed by canyon walls that are speckled with signs of human industry. As vultures lazily take flight in the foreground, the viewer is perched atop the dam, partaking in the great accomplishments of man. In the distance, an incomplete bridge arching towards completion spans the canyon, an impressive piece of architecture rendered useless and absurd by the meager river below.
Chuck Forsman, MARKERS: Fox Near Delta, Colorado, Pigment print, 28 x 40 inches; Courtesy of Robischon Gallery
In his photography, Forsman continues engaging the viewer on a more intimate scale. These images focus on everyday sightings, from simple panoramas punctuated by power lines to tire tracks on red dirt roads. Focused on a human vantage point, neither lenses nor oblique angles are used to distort our perceptions—a fact that makes these surreal glimpses into the margins between the civilized world and the wild all the more interesting. One such moment of intrigue is captured in MARKERS: Fox Near Delta, Colorado. The viewer is perched on a hill and gazing down onto worn paths listlessly wandering out of sight. The downward gaze creates an oppressive, closed-off composition. A red fox darts away, the only sign of life, but the edges of the frame cut him off, shrinking his world to fit a camera lens.
Forsman's work relies on the Western gaze to interrogate the viewer. He practices this gaze that is couched in the ideal of the American West and parlays this fictive frontier into a soft affront. Romanticized representations of the depicted, captured and rugged expanses are confronted with the presence of people, both thematically and in actuality. Forsman’s appropriation of the landscape genre evokes the reality of humanity's unfolding presence by casting reality, romantically.
An exhibition of Forsman’s photography, Seen in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman, is on view at the Denver Art Museum until May 25, 2014.
(Image on top: Chuck Forsman, Big Drop: Notes from the River’s Journal, Oil on panel, 51 x 82 inches; Courtesy of Robischon Gallery)