Dennis Sloan grew up in Hardin in eastern Montana, where the color in the sky and color below informs his art to this day.
Sloan, now 71, recalls that when he was 6 or 7, his dad would ask his opinion on colors of paint as he squeezed them from tubes into a five-gallon bucket to mix them. "To see the colors going together, it just blew me away," Sloan said. Blue could merge with gray, subtly changing it.
Those ideas about gradated color and landscape underpin almost every painting in "The Art of Refinement," an exhibition of oil paintings that span 40 years, now on view at Gallery 709 at Montana Art and Framing.
There are landscapes in his bright color schemes. Others introduce abstracted shapes inspired by poetry and science fiction, or the female form. In "Between Worlds," he set three abstract slices of a drip painting atop a lake vista, with bright orange sky bleeding into purple. The image of a trinity and underlying visual theme came from a Carl Sandburg poem of the same name, in which the polymath writer contemplated the continuity between birth, beauty and death.
In "Dualities," another large painting, the orange-to-blue skyline is a backdrop from totem-like rectangles from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Stanley Kubrick's psychedelic imagery also informed some of Sloan's recent "Doorways" series. He takes the heightened palette from his landscapes and melds them to imagery of doorways opening into different landscapes.
The sense of space in eastern Montana, where the Big Sky Country moniker is truer than it is in the West, has remained with him. The openness of the vistas, such as the one approaching Hardin, are vast and uncomfortable to some people.
"A lot of people want to hide," Sloan said. "With me, it was just the opposite. I just loved it."
Sloan's dad was a commercial union painter, a trade that Sloan has followed to support his art since the late 1960s. His grandmother was a pianist, and his great-grandmother an artist. He was interested in music, but eventually decided to study art.
He was drafted into the Army in 1966 and sent to train as a electrical lineman in Georgia. His class was stationed in Germany, where eventually they were put into service as tank gunners. He did several runs on duty on the border with Czechoslovakia, where he saw the literal Iron Curtain: a "12-foot high, barbed wire fence that was going for hundreds of miles." He was honorably discharged in 1967 and never had to serve a tour in Vietnam.
He enrolled at Eastern Montana College, now called Montana State University Billings, to study art. He was interested in advertising design, and his instructors encouraged him to go to Los Angeles.
He spent a year at the Art Center College of Design before deciding that advertising design, such as album promotion and story illustration projects, wasn't for him. He returned, this time to the University of Montana to refocus on painting, and studied under Rudy Autio and Walter Hook. He's mostly remained in Missoula, although he's sometimes spent the winters in Santa Fe or Seattle.
His art has gone through phases. For awhile, he painted silhouettes of female nudes. His model brought her own props, and one day brought a handgun. He painted a few, thinking they symbolized feminism and women asserting themselves in American culture. To his surprise, some women viewed them as symbols of sexism, or even assault.
Early in his career, he was influenced by abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but began heading into the opposite direction. He said he began "eliminating subject matter and eliminating and eliminating and finally I just started doing minimalism."
The works at Gallery 709 aren't pure minimalism. Compared to many landscape painters in Montana, they count as minimalist. He prefers hard-edged planes of color, with only subtle brushstrokes and none of the virtuoso marks of expressionists. "I always thought by working flat and not having a lot of texture, it lent itself to the two-dimensionality," he said.
Through his eye, a mountain range over a lake might be distilled into a series of three or four silhouettes of ridgelines. He might start with a photograph but use it only as a jumping-off point not a deliberate re-creation of a specific place.
A selection of his series of female nudes, titled "Montana Venus," still don't turn away from the skylines. He would work from a model and then abstract the form into intersecting silhouettes, with alpenglow color schemes filling the gaps. Some of these were exhibited in a 1995 solo show at the Abney Gallery in New York.
A review in Artspeak praised the color and composition, saying the pieces "transcend regionalism."