Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Robin Denevan: Is and Is Not

In his Treatise on Painting Leonardo daVinci suggests looking at stains on walls (as well as ashes from a fire, clouds, mud) for inspiration. In them, he says, you’ll find fantastical scenes, landscapes, and faces with strange expressions. One can imagine Robin Denevan being inspired by a similar experience for his current body of work. Look at his paintings now at Julie Nester Gallery and you can imagine his inspiration coming from paint stripper applied to an old door ormoulding: as the caustic material causes the old stain to curdle the artist discovers a possibility for painting. But rather than raging battle scenes, Denevan sees the calm though exhilirating landscapes of the place where land and water meet sky.

Denevan, Julie Nester says, doesn’t share much about his process. My imagined “aha” moment may be as fantastical as one of the scenes dreamed up by Leonardo. But in these long, horizontal paintings, filled with jewel-like hues of amber, copal, topaz and jade, it seems apparent that Denevan has manipulated his paint surfaces with some chemcial reaction that causes the paint to spread across the surface in an even craquelure, or else curdle into lines and masses. But unlike the mess you might make out of a home repair project, Denevan appears to be in expert control of his material, creating dynamic works full of radiant light and engrossing detail.

Denevan is a San Francisco artist whose studio rests on the shores of the India Basin. During low tides there kelp and earth become sinewy patterns that blend with the still waters.|1| This landscape has been an enduring interest, as evidenced by earlier works available on the gallery’s website, where the artist’s gaze looks down on to the vegetation so that sky and horizon are outside the picture plane. In these works, painted on canvas, Denevan tries to mimic the liquid quality of the water and humid air, but his streaks and blends fail to captivate in the way his newer landscapes fixed on the horizon line do. Denevan’s shift, in this body of work, to painting on metal — he uses sheets of aluminum and steel — gives his tones an increased luminosity, and allows the artist to bathe the paint in solvents. Technique, then, necessitates the strict horizontals of paintings like “Coral Sky,” |2| where paint dissolves towards the top or toward the bottom of the work; necessity has created astounding, marvelously minimal compositions shifting between calm elegance and dynamic action.

Years ago a local gallerist told me they didn’t accept seascapes: in Utah they simply didn’t sell. That the scenes I was proposing were painted within 20 miles of the gallery, along the shores of the Great Salt Lake, was irrelevant. If that is true, one might wonder what appeal Denevan’s work, of low marshlands and estuaries, could hold for a local audience. Denevan could have used his technique to create strictly non-objective works, minimalist bands of textured colored similar to the work of many of his contemporaries; but he chose to portray the landscape of his home, as well as his travels. His paintings evoke the magical effects you might see in Denevan’s India Basin and across the country in the Chesapeake Bay; or farther afield, these could be paintings from the parts of the Venetian lagoon ignored by tourists, or the broad expanses of the Amazon Basin|0| (in his paintings, though, we might also recognize those shallow pools north of the Salt Lake airport you marvel at every time you leave for one of these other destinations).

In opting for mimesis, for representing a subject, Denevan’s work plays in that universally appealing place between is and is not. To describe something by what it is and what it is not is a classic analytical process for bounding a problem. In art, though, it is the quality that makes mimetic painting so fascinating. A strictly representational painting usually remains inert, but a painting that both achieves the likeness and feel of a subject, while insisting on its quality as paint, is an active, dynamic work.|3| This is why we enjoy a portrait by John Singer Sargent even when we have no idea who the sitter is, or care, if we do. Sargent’s ability to create a likeness makes us marvel at his techincal skill, but to see that line of white paint swirled through a wet patch of gray to create a collar gives us a sensual pleasure in the paint itself.

In other words, fascinating works of art are as much about the materials as about the subject or technical dexterity. In a work like “Submerged,”|4| Denevan’s paint effects create a convincing representation of kelp-strewn islets, receding into the distance until they become a single mass. But then, just before the amber glow of the horizon line, the sediment of grossly precipitated paint sitting on the painting’s surface reminds us that it is and is not a landscape.

In painting, a discussion of mimesis always goes back to the Greek story of Zeuxis, a painter who produced a still life so convincing birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. In Denevan’s work it is not so much that we are fooled into thicking the cluster of grapes is real. It is that we see that they are paint and want to eat them all the same.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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