Aztec painter Dale Latta gets urban in his latest exhibition

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FARMINGTON — When he was an art teacher at Bloomfield High School, Dale Latta liked to take a group of students to New York City each year to broaden their artistic horizons.

“I wanted them to see some of the great museums,” he said. “You can see a picture of a painting in a book, but there’s nothing like standing in the shadow of what the real thing looks like in person, the impact you get from standing in front of a masterwork in the flesh. I wanted my kids to experience that.”

As gratifying as those experiences were, Latta had another reason for taking those trips to New York. He was compiling material for a series of works that would come to be the collection he is displaying in a new exhibition opening Friday, Oct. 2 at San Juan College.

When he wasn’t occupied with his students, and during another trip he took to the Big Apple with his wife in March, Latta was snapping photographs of busy streetscapes in Manhattan, many of which were captured through glass, which gave them a somewhat distorted effect. When he returned home to his house north of Aztec, he downloaded the 1,500 images to a computer, chose the most compelling ones and began to manipulate them, running up the contrast and sometimes dramatically altering the color.

But that was only the beginning of the effect Latta was looking for.

The next step was to print those photos, make a drawing of them on canvas or clay slabs. The he started painting.

“I start with acrylic and go over that with oil,” he said. “The oil adds a lot of texture because it holds the brushstrokes more than acrylic. I would also ramp up the color even more. It really brightens it.”

The result is a series of bright, striking paintings of urban streetscapes that are designed to convey what Latta describes as the sensory overload of modern life.

“There are a lot of people, color and commotion,” Latta said, describing the atmosphere of the paintings.

For a guy who grew up in the Midwest and who has spent most of his adult life under the expansive skies of the West, it may seem odd that he would choose to focus his artistic attention on gritty, energetic New York street scenes. Latta laughed when asked about that apparent contradiction.

“It’s hard to put into words why I like this kind of imagery, but it’s the only thing that appealed to me for years,” he said. “I like the movement, the chaos of the people, the bright lights.”

Latta’s imagery, and style, long ago caught the eye of fellow local painter Michael Bulloch, a member of the San Juan College Fine Arts Committee, which chose Latta’s work for display at the Henderson Fine Arts Gallery.

“I like his use of color,” Bulloch said. “I’m a colorist myself, so that’s a big draw for me. I also like the sense of motion he gets in his paintings. I like his compositions.”

Beyond his subject matter, Latta describes his style as Neo-Expressionism, and not Neo-Impressionism, as the two approaches often are mistaken for each other, he said.

“The brushstrokes are heavy – that gives the piece an emotional content,” he said, adding that he also employs such techniques as splashing or dripping paint on his work. “There’s lots of movement on the surface of the canvas as a result.”

Latta began painting in college and was a follower of the Abstract Expressionist movement headed by Jackson Pollack, though Latta took a less-revolutionary approach to his work than Pollack.

“I was more like some of the others who used brushes instead of just throwing it,” he said. “But they were big, heavy, sloppy brushstrokes with bright color and lots of action.”

Latta later would retreat from that approach, resuming his painting career 15 years ago by deciding he was going to try to nail down realism in his work. His goal was to create paintings that were as close to a photograph as he could manage. He said that period of his career continues to influence his work today, as there remains a photographic element to his paintings.

“You can stand across a large room, and my work looks like a photograph,” he said. “But as you move closer to it, it looks more and more abstract.”

Despite its abstract influences, Bulloch said Latta’s work remains accessible and distinctive.

“He has a visual style he’s developed,” said Bulloch, who has known Latta for many years. “Artists are always changing and growing, and you can certainly see a difference in his earlier work and now. But he’s remained consistent in quality, for sure.”

Eventually, Latta adopted a style that borrowed from both of the aforementioned approaches. He seems happy with the results of that journey.

“The act of painting is one of the more satisfying things I’ve ever been engaged in,” he said. “Part of the most satisfying thing for me is the act of putting on oil. I sometimes mix it with other ingredients to make it more gooey. When you add fluid to oil, it kind of has a glow.”

That’s as far as Latta cares to go in describing his compulsion to paint, adding only, “If you could explain it, you wouldn’t have to paint.”

But he doesn’t mind talking about how it feels to be alone in his studio, located adjacent to his house, where he likes to turn on music, pick up his brushes and feel himself become enveloped in his work.

“I get into kind of a zone,” Latta said. “It’s similar in some ways to athletes. The world goes away. It’s just you and the paint. It’s pretty great.”

Latta’s show includes more than 20 works. His show will remain on display at the gallery through Oct. 23.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610 and measterling@daily-times.com. Follow him @measterlingdt on Twitter.

IF YOU GO

What: Opening reception for “New Work” by artist Dale Latta

When: 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2

Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Gallery on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

For more information: Call 505-566-3464

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