Chairs have been the subject of paintings throughout history. Van Gogh painted one, so did John Singer Sargent, Henri Matisse and David Hockney. Edward Hopper chose a train car filled with mostly empty dark green chairs, focusing on a blonde female figure for his painting “Chair Car.” An exhibit currently open at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Art in Pagosa Springs, called “The Chair” hearkens back to these traditions. But the subject of the work is not just the brown leather chair from the artist’s home that sits in the middle of the gallery. The driving notion is the permutation of the image of that particular chair with its distinctive attributes and the bodies it accommodates. The artist deconstructs the figure and the aesthetic object of the chair, disassembling them to explore paint.
The artist is Karl Isberg, someone with a history in the state of Colorado who remains relatively unknown. Partly because he wants it to be that way. But partly because we in Colorado don’t do a very good job of honoring, remembering, and valuing our own artists. (But that’s topic for more than just another post, but another blog!) After a brief stint in New York playing music in the mid to late 1960s, the Colorado native returned and founded one of the first alternative art galleries in Denver, 1418 with Kip Farris in 1974. Many artists living and working today in Denver and along the Front Range
showed at 1418: Daniel Luna, Mondo Jud Hart, Roberto Luna, Mark Dickson, Jean Schiff, Frank Sampson, Donna Ciccone, Margaret Neumann, Jerry De la Cruz, and Martha Daniels. Then, in 1987 he fled the Front Range for life in remote Southwestern Colorado where he is free to paint, to write, to play music and avoid the entire notion of the “Art Market.” Isberg is the editor of the Pagosa Springs SUN newspaper. He writes a weekly column about food and wine, two more of his passions.
Until 1986 he taught aesthetics, philosophy of art, and humanities through the arts at Metropolitan State College while maintaining his avid studio practice. He has never not been a painter. He studied art with the painter James F. Parker and the sculptor Robert Mangold. Parker, who was the founding chairman of the art department at the Metropolitan State College in Denver went on to become the director of the Paris campus of the Parsons School of Design before his death in 1985. It was from Parker that Isberg learned his classical drawing techniques as well as being influenced by his advocacy for the New York School of abstract expressionism. In 1973, Isberg exhibited at the Denver Art Museum in the Metropolitan Show, two paintings called “Mescaline Monsters,” and since then has been categorized as an abstract artist. Though much of his work over the years has been figurative.
“Many people claim to see a sharp division between the works they label ‘abstract’ and the more recognizably figurative work. In reality, it is all figurative work. I believe in the power of the figure, and I believe it is enhanced by rarification, abstraction, and the re-presentation of the figure and its elements. That can occur in many forms but, at the core, it is all driven by a devotion to the fundamentally figurative image.” Isberg writes in his bio.
This exhibit is about the re-presented human figure. Isberg’s chair is similar to, yet not like Cezanne’s painting of Madame “Cezanne in a Red Armchair.” In Cezanne’s painting the chair recedes into the background. In Isberg’s “The Chair: C” the red chair has a presence and the figure is leaning forward, her face and body abstracted like a de Kooning woman, but without the violent and angry lines. More a cross between de Kooning and Francis Bacon with a bit of Jenny Saville whose portraits are pressed and melting against an invisible glass. Some of the works have the texture and tone of Egon Schiele. I’m particularly thinking of “Man and Woman I (Lovers 1)” and “The Family” when viewing the two different Isberg paintings titled “The Chair: C, J”
And while it is a series (Isberg has painted more than 50 works, though only a handful are on display in this show) it is not mimetic and does not explore verisimilitude. These works are about paint and about art history and aesthetics. They are influenced by Chaim Soutine (one of the few male figures Isberg painted has a Soutine face. The long nose, the droopy eyes), Henri Matisse, Jean August Dominique Ingres (two female spines merge together to create an Odalisque in another Isberg). They are erotic and unsettling, yet sensual and fantastic. In these paintings one sees Manet’s “Olympia,” Courbet’s “Femme nue” and Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.” While not purely cubist works, the influence of cubism on Isberg’s abstraction is more Juan Gris than Picasso. Isberg prefers a very shallow picture plane and sometimes it simply does not exist in these paintings. Two small paintings in this exhibition are the most original, with deft paint handling that is at once fauvist and expressionistic. They are about the paint, but also seemed to capture the essence and idea of “The Chair” most for me by breaking down the elements to their essence. They are “The Chair: CT, CB” and “The Chair: CT, N” where the figure and the chair are all chopped up into pure abstraction, but all the formal elements truly stand out. They are distinctive, lush with paint, sybaritic, the chair expressed in the richest chocolate, the floor the deepest rhone red. It all comes together.
Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts is located in a warehouse district on the West side of Pagosa Springs, CO. They have been in existence since 2004 offering professional workshops and exhibiting the quality of contemporary art one expects to find in Santa Fe or Denver, not in a metal building off Bastille Drive in a small Southwestern Colorado town. And hey Denver, Isberg is still painting. A true member of Colorado’s counter culture, he should be on your radar. Yes. I’m talking to you Adam Lerner. Just because an artist chooses to leave the art world, doesn’t mean the art world has the right to forget them or ignore them.
A version of this article originally appeared on adobeairstream.com.