spring morning, casein on panel, 984 x 147 in.
Stephen Batura is a Colorado artist represented by Robischon Gallery in Denver. His large-scale, monochromatic paintings based on historical photographs from the early 20th century, as well as images from books and the internet, are currently on display at Robischon Gallery in an exhibition titled “Appropriated: The Chronicled West.” Three other artists, Edie Winograde, Jerry Kunkle, and Gary Emrich also have works in this show. “Appropriated: The Chronicled West” is open through May 5, 2012.
Interview by Hayley Richardson
You are originally from Colorado, and have lived, worked, and exhibited here throughout your career. It seems like this state has its own distinct “breed” of artist and that the art community here is very tight knit. What do you think it means to be a Colorado artist, and what does the art scene in Denver in particular represent to you?
I can consider myself a Colorado artist because I am a native, I was born here, and that is unusual for the art scene. The art scene I came up in is much different than the one that is available now. In the early 1980s there weren’t a lot of galleries in Denver so a lot of artists started co-ops, and that was the best place to see contemporary art. I went to those places for years before I joined one of them and even before I joined it was a very open and accessible community and there was a lot of enthusiasm for new work and risk taking. I think now I am not as in touch with all the galleries—there are many more venues for fledgling artists and ambitious artists too. That’s a big change, and a very positive one for Denver.
Do you think there’s been a strong core group of people involved in the art scene here over the years?
I think it’s become way more developed since then. When we think about “groups” that formed over the course of art history, they are really less connected than we like to think. Certainly they are all contemporary people and I know a lot of current artists, but we are not all in each other’s studios everyday discussing ideas. So the affinities that develop between people and artists are usually very casual. There’s usually one or two people who you align with and who push you and you push them. But the difference, with Denver especially, is the availability of places and opportunities to show. The level of competition is nothing like when I started and everybody encouraged one another, there weren’t people trying to get your “slot.” Everybody wanted to see what you did and they wanted you to see what they did and I am not sure what the atmosphere is like now, if there is a lot of competitive interactions, but it was a great place to start. There was a lot of encouragement and people were interested in what everyone was doing.
Your paintings currently on display here at the Robischon Gallery are representative of a very large body of work that you have focused on for about ten years. Can you tell me what is has been like to explore this theme so deeply and intimately? Can you describe how it has evolved over the years?
Well that question is incorrect with this work in this way: the train wrecks, in which there are 5 in this show, are separate from the work I have been doing for the last ten years. The work from the last ten years has focused on the output of a CO photographer who is not very well known named Charles Lillybridge. I’ve been making work based on his photographs for about a decade. So what connects this work with the train wreck work and the earlier work is that I use mostly found photography, historical photographs. That’s something I’ve been doing since the mid-1990s and I continue to do it. I work from some of my own photographs—I’ve been working from this resource of Lillybridge photographs from the Colorado Historical Society Collection for about a decade.
I started the Lillybridge stuff at about the same time as some of my train wreck paintings [points to 2 on display] around 1998. Other paintings in this show are later, like from 2002.
Are the paintings that are not based on the Lillybridge photographs still inspired by other historical photographs?
They are still from the same collection of photos donated to the Colorado Historical Society, but are poorly documented as far as when and where they were taken. It is a very odd trove of images, very peculiar, idiosyncratic photographs taken by a guy who lived in a little shack by the river, and wandered around with his camera and took pictures.
Many of your paintings in this exhibition depict scenes of destruction and collapse, yet they are set within a historical context in which this region of the country was growing and prosperous. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose to focus on this time period in your work? What is it about this era, and the photographs you work from in particular, that captivated your imagination for all this time?
I think I like the ambitious nature of what’s happening, whether it’s something being built or something that has failed in the form of a train wreck. They are both big, ambitious projects and sort of overreaching ideas. I like my paintings to reflect that large-scale idea. The way I developed the train wreck pictures—I had been working before that with very simple images that I took photographs of myself. I found figurines in thrift stores and then I photographed them and then made very large-scale paintings of those. They are very simple images without much detail, which was sort of the point. If you blow up a little figurine that’s five inches tall to five feet tall, there is very little content in it except for the shape with a couple little pieces of paint on them. From there I wanted to do dramatically complicated work, so I started to find these pictures of train wrecks which were spectacular, loaded with detail, and had elements of all kinds of painting: people, landscape, some elements of still-life with all this stuff spilled and piled up everywhere, and also a lot of abstract references which is where my interest in painting stems from, the Post-Impressionists and onward, and especially what we call “modern art.”
I am curious about your process. How are you able to translate small, antique photos into monumental contemporary paintings? Can you also talk about the physical aspects of your work, how its large compositions are put together with two or three separate panels?
I am very practical. I knew painters who did big work had trouble getting it in and out of spaces. I like wood panels. I like to work on a hard surface. I knew I could put them up next to each other and make paintings that fit together. So that explains my approach. I knew I wanted them big, and it’s still a practical solution that works fine.
As far as the method, I am working almost exclusively from downloads from the internet and sometimes I photograph little pictures I find in books. That’s where a lot of the train wrecks come from. These are, universally, not very clear photographs. They are often just basic journalism. There is not any attempt to do a bold statement or make a work of art. They are more of a record of an occurrence. So I work from these small images that are obviously black and white and what that let me do was allow some of my input, such as the use of color, which let me define these often undefined parts of the painting that were very vague in the photograph. So I am working from small, not very well composed, not very refined images, and then using my imagination and my instincts to complete that into a large format painting.
I read about your exhibition at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art that took place last year, and how you switched gears from works like we see here now at Robischon to doing paintings of collages you had made from fashion and design photography. What prompted this transition from painting recognizable imagery from the early 20th century to painting highly abstract and conceptual works?
It might be too strong to use the word “boredom” . . . I had worked for two years on a show here at this gallery [Robischon] in 2009 and had over 60 works in that show. I had worked pretty much non-stop on that, and that was all Lillybridge influenced work. When BMOCA approached me about an exhibition, they had planned to show some of that work, and when they came to do a studio visit, I had just begun doing these very automatic collages from a bunch of fashion magazines someone had gave me. I tore them up and I started just assembling pictures without thinking about them, and I had big stack of them laying on my table when the BMOCA people arrived. They wanted to look through those and they really responded to them. I had a few months before the show, and they said that if I wanted to pursue this stuff then they would show that too. You don’t always have the opportunity like that at a museum to show brand-new work, and I was real excited to try that. So I took these collages and made paintings of them.
Are they on the same scale as these works here at Robischon?
Not quite . . . they are large but not as large as these. They were experiments and it was an interesting break from this hard representation I had been doing for quite a while.
Is this something that you would like to continue, or explore other similar avenues?
I think it’s in my head and I’ve been trying to play off some element of that, the collage element in particular. I think I am sort of casting around with the old work and with the newer stuff and see where it goes. There a few paintings in this show that are brand new and we will see what develops.
Have you ever worked in collage prior to this exhibition? What other types of art making do you enjoy?
I don’t think I have really done collage before. The closest I came to collage was when I was doing very simple things to photographs. This would have been around ’95. I did paintings based on costumes and I would find photographs of costumes in books and I would take the picture and maybe make one cut through the image and then push the two pieces together to make the image smaller. So a big dress would become half the size and have certain contours. They were meant to be a little mysterious about how I arrived at that. They didn’t look contrived but if you look close you could a seam in the picture, a break in the contour and things like that. So there was a little subtlety to them, but I wouldn’t call them collages because they weren’t multiple images. It was just one image that was cropped and slightly altered.
I don’t really have many other artistic pursuits. Painting has always been what I responded to most. I draw a little bit. Drawing was sort of born out of this Lillybridge work because I was trying to figure out what I was looking at. It was easier to do that with a sharp, pointed instrument to draw with—somehow get a sense to know of what I was trying to deal with. Before that I really didn’t do much drawing. The work that really has developed is pure painting. I’ve never done any sculpture or anything like that, I mostly respond to two-dimensional work.
Which artists do you admire? Who has leant the most inspiration to your work?
I would say there are three artists right now who most important to me that I keep going back to. Most recently Gerhard Richter, the range of his work is amazing and he has really launched a lot of different things. When people see a retrospective of his work they will see connections to a lot of different work by a lot of different artists from all over, so he did innovative things before many other people and he continues to make impressive work.
Matisse is somebody that has always intrigued me. I always loved his looseness and his color and his explorations. He doesn’t get enough credit for experimentation. People definitely recognize it, but he was so relentlessly innovative. His works on paper, which is what I was looking at when I was doing the BMOCA collage work, his cut-outs are so brilliant and represent a distillation of everything he ever did.
The third artist would be Max Beckmann. Apart from being the most beautiful painter, he made such great, lush images and was able to do mysterious narratives and somehow get away with it. He wasn’t tied to a narrative tradition that we knew, and he wasn’t doing what other modernist painters were doing by making simplified images from life. He was really telling stories but we didn’t know what those stories were and yet they are evocative and they are still difficult to decipher. So those are my three guys . . .
I go through phases where I look at different artists and different ones crop up. I was very influenced by Luc Tuymans from Belgium, who I first saw in the early 90s. He was one of the first people to use photographic work that is obviously photographic but still very much his own work. He widely influenced younger artists with that approach. There are a lot of artists that I will tune into while I work on certain problems or work for certain show, but those three I mentioned before are the artists I turn to again and again.
What do you see on the horizon of the larger Colorado art community? What is on your plate for the future?
I am very impressed by the work by young artists that I see around town and in the galleries and museums. It’s a problematic opportunity to show young people who are not defined yet and I worry about them having the opportunity to show so early because that can lock you into a style or a format or a way of working that you might abandon if you don’t have early success. But with that said, I am really happy to see really high-quality work from young people, to see them have opportunities to show, and to have a great institution like the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) have a much more involved presence in contemporary art in the form of their new Director. The gallery system has greatly expanded from just co-ops to more professional galleries that are helping the artist in a lot of different ways. When I started, it was really on the backs on the artist to do every aspect of the job.
Right now I am pursuing whatever I feel like pursuing. As far as what I am doing at the moment, I don’t really have a particular show lined up but I have some ideas for things I want to do. So I am working with this new format, working through some of these collage aspects. Otherwise I don’t know what the future has in store. I guess we will just have to wait and see.