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A Landscape of Contradictions

CHUCK FORSMAN looks hard at the American landscape, specifically the American West. What he sees, he paints. Beauty falls from his brush like rain, but so does the truth. And between the beauty of form, the beauty of light, color, earth, and water, lie the disturbing facts about what humankind is doing to the earth - sometimes out of necessity and sometimes not.

These are wonderful paintings, intelligent, thought-provoking, bold, and forceful. You can't look at them and go back to sleep, dreaming that all is well with the environment. On the other hand, Mr. Forsman avoids didacticism with beauty - for example, sometimes the road that scars the landscape has its own sinuous loveliness, and the dammed water that fills a once-splendid canyon can be crystal clear and inviting. We are left with troubling emotions - conflicting and yet oddly interesting, stimulating, even exciting. Forsman does not tell us what to think. But he thinks out loud, as it were, in paint. He poses hard questions, but does not answer them for us with the easy platitudes. Instead, we are given the opportunity to ponder our own ambiguous feelings.

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Sitting in his ample, light-filled studio, I learn a little more about his career in art, though I have been following his work for 10 years now. Forsman came to realism by way of abstraction - a fine road to take, since abstraction can teach a great deal about form and space, line and color.

As a graduate student in art, he found out he really was an artist. Just home from the Vietnam War, he would take a piece of masonite (still his preferred painting surface), put it up on a blank wall, look at it, and think how to divide it up with a handful of simple lines. Those lines became very complex over the years.

Minimalism was very appealing to him at that time because he had seen a very complex world, an unthinkable world - the world of war. The world of the painting and the studio was more perfect. Gradually he looked outward, first to nature coming into his studio and into the painting (in the form of a butterfly), then to the window and the world beyond the studio, and finally to the outside.

"I grew up with this basic assumption that art and nature were the same thing," he says. "I think I still feel that way. And so it was probably inevitable that I started painting nature."

As a child, Forsman had lived on a plateau in north central Oregon. He would sit on the porch in the evening and watch the sunset over the Cascades. He loved the mountains. He now lives in Boulder, Colo., and teaches in the art department of the University of Colorado. Snuggled up against the famous Flatirons, Boulder offers the best of city and mountain life.

Just outside of Boulder on a green hill, a new housing development spreads slowly toward Denver. The houses are fairly large, very ugly. But they represent the American dream for many people. That housing development is very similar to thousands of other housing developments all over the West.

In "American Fable," a mountain rises out of crisscrossing diagonals like an ancient temple or a distant pyramid. But the remote peak has been denuded of its desert vegetation, gashed by roads and ropes of just such upscale ticky-tacky as lies outside of Boulder. Masterly composed with an almost-Olympian grandeur, "American Fable" is both elegant and crass, lovely and hideous.

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THIS fabulous Western light, absolutely true to nature, graces the mountain; the sky blossoms with clouds above, in the heroic fashion. Meanwhile, cars slide on up the highway, blue drain pipes intrude on the foreground, echoing the blue car and the sliver of blue sky above the clouds. Rolling shapes and strong diagonals freely complement each other. The color is delicate, right. It is all a terrible and terribly beautiful image, far from the rosy ideal of the American dream, yet formally marvelous and d isturbing of complacency.

Contradictions. We all know what it means to feel conflicting emotions. That is one of the most striking features of Forsman's work, his ability to allow formidable contradictions on the picture plane without exploding the aesthetics of the entire work of art. Somehow he manages to nudge the mind. The roads are not ugly, though clearly they scar the mountains. Even the drain pipes are lively in their own way. But we want them gone. We feel the intrusive constructions like a slap in the face. That's what he wants - for us to feel the ambiguities he sees and feels.

"I may be overwhelmed by emotions, and the emotions can be conflicting." Forsman says. "I ask myself about my own reactions. And I'll spend a lot of time looking and come again and look later - or look at it from a different viewpoint. The [site] may fill me with awe or with wonder. Maybe it will fill me with anger.

"When I look at a landscape, I really feel as though there are things it is trying to tell me. So I'm trying to be as open as possible in reading the situation. I can get a great deal from looking at it very naively - looking at it straight on without any information whatsoever." But Forsman doesn't stop there. He begins to ask himself questions, guess at the answers, talk to people, and read any available information about the site. Sometimes the answers are very practical. But sometimes no one knows wh y a particular dam has been built, for example.

"I want to make pictures that really question," he says, "that ask as many questions as possible. That's almost the definition for me of the difference between art and illustration. Art asks questions, and illustrations give answers."

Forsman questions assumptions, his own as well as the assumptions of others. That, too, is inherent in his art.

He points out that people can get into mind-sets based on faulty assumptions that lead to very grave wrongs. When an Indian village was flooded as a dam site, all the people lost their ancestral homes. They were powerless to stop it. The excuse was the "common good." But whose good, he asks. The common good of one race, one class, one people over another?

"People still operate with those assumptions they grew up with, learned in books - assumptions that don't hold anymore," he says of history and the treatment of native Americans over the centuries. "A lot of what I do is weed out assumptions, find out what the assumptions are. I know I come with mine, and I question them, too. But an artist is someone who deliberately gets outside to look in. I stand outside and look in to find the balance."

There is always a distance in his paintings, too, as if they were offering perspective to the viewer - both physical and moral. The viewer often looks down toward a subject. Often there is a tree, an animal, or a person in the near foreground with whom the viewer will identify - we look at the painting together.

For the past couple of years, now, Forsman has chosen to paint dams across the West. He goes to a site that's neutral, empty, allowing the site itself to stimulate the questions.

"I don't suppress the knowledge that many of these dams are useful - a necessary evil. But many of them aren't. For me, the dams become a kind of metaphor for larger questions. The Western landscapes are a naked terrain. It's hard to hide what you do out there. Acid rain destroys a lake in the East, and nobody knows. Back East, its easier to hide."

His paintings are realistic. But they are really composites of a particular site. Forsman takes dozens of black-and-white photos, studies the site from many perspectives, and then returns to his studio to paint the larger reality - imagination and memory edging in. There are no formulas. Always, there is more to Forsman's paintings than meets the eye. Each work presents its own formal difficulties, and the artist is always deeply engaged with the formal qualities of his work.

Often Forsman chooses to curve the edge of the canvas, to break away from the constraints of the rectangle. He extends the painted image obliquely onto the black wood frames, sculptured to suit a strange shape.

He is a wizard of realism, his drawing precise, exquisite. But he handles paint with feeling, and his expressive strokes sometimes actually disconnect you from the picturesque.

In "Pilgrim and Blue Plymouth," Forsman has a figure standing on a road looking off to a reservoir, an unsatisfied "pilgrim" craving natural beauty, and perhaps more than that. The very title starts you wondering what he seeks. The sun, already very low, sinks, casting golden light through the long shadows. Dark, stormy clouds overhead can't prevent that sinking sun from streaking gold across the landscape. We all know what it means to try to reconcile the natural wonders with the human mistakes, greed, carelessness, and genuine need. In the foreground, a stone fence interrupts the view of road, man, car, and man-made lake. In the upper left, a bird spread its wings, like many a Renaissance dove, and escapes the frame.

"Ants" is a harsher piece, perhaps. An unnatural, frightening light pervades the dam, the water, and the town beyond. Garish as the light is, unnatural as the entire painting feels, disturbing as its meaning may be, there is still a gentle spirit at work behind the piece, a warning, an exhortation born of love and experience - critical, yes, but never exclusive of the human.

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