Above the Fray

The current revival of 1920s and '30s academic surrealism has grown into an international school of contemporary painting, and it has local legs that stretch back to the 1970s. Its adherents employ traditional painting genres such as landscapes, portraits and still lifes. But rather than work with a straight face, as the historic revivalists do, they add a twist--incongruous elements, perhaps, or unlikely subject matter.

In two new solo exhibits, a pair of young painters add their own surrealist takes on the seemingly age-old landscape tradition. Scenes of land and sky are glimpsed in William Stockman: The Phenomenology of Birds, at Rule Gallery. Going beyond heaven and earth for his inspiration is Don Carleno, whose Don Carleno: Space Art is showing at Pirate.

Only a few years ago, Stockman was an emerging up-and-comer. Today he's recognized as a regional master, and his paintings have made him one of the most talked-about artists in the area.

Stockman was born in 1965 in Summit, New Jersey, where he grew up. He came west to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he received his BFA in 1989. While an art student, Stockman fell under the influence of painter and CU art professor Kay Miller. And, as might be expected, for several years he worked in Miller's manner, which could be described as cake-decorator expressionism, since the paint looks like it's been squeezed on right from the tube (which it has).

In 1995 Stockman unveiled his own signature style in the triumphant Pirate show Fictional Eulogies. Instead of the gloppy and quirky Miller-inspired work, these paintings featured smoothly blended colors and carefully conceived and rendered subjects. They were dark and murky in contrast to the bright colors Miller prefers. There was no denying it--Miller's example had taught Stockman how not to paint.

And Stockman wasn't just painting. Even as he was refining his painting technique, he was creating charcoal-on-paper drawings that were displayed at Pirate and the now-defunct Grant Gallery. When put next to his paintings, these drawings looked to be the work of an entirely different person. But though Stockman appeared to be two artists, both of them were very good.

The five massive paintings that have been beautifully installed in the front gallery at Rule are examples of Stockman's efforts to resolve his split artistic personality--and in this they're completely successful. Stockman integrates his very different drawing and painting styles by placing "drawn" elements, done mostly in white pigment, on top of his deep brown, green and blue paintings. "I like to mix things up with constantly shifting stylistic gears," he says. "It's my attempt to articulate what can't be seen in the landscape."

Stockman says he wants to create paintings that "feature open-ended meanings at both the beginning and the end." This, of course, makes the title of the exhibit mere free association, because phenomenology--essentially the science of the obvious--is anything but enigmatic. Oh, well. Stockman is surely entitled to his artistic--or in this case, literary--license.

Stockman's great gift is to convey an unnerving mood to his paintings. In "Egg," an oil on canvas, he fills the large composition nearly to overflowing with a mottled sepia-colored egg. The egg, which is bound in brown rope, is placed in a landscape of dark umbers, deep blues and luminous bluish-whites. The effect Stockman creates is disarmingly simple yet also very creepy.

The four other mural-sized paintings are pictorially more complex and, in that way, more expected from Stockman. The gloomy scene in "Plume," an oil-and-gold-leaf on canvas, is classic Stockman. The painting features a flat, dimly discerned landscape under a heavily clouded sky; on the left are the silhouettes of battered palm trees, on the right a black and white dog standing guard over a fallen bird. Stockman, though, infuses this desolate world with magic. A gold-leaf halo of lines and stars floats over the dog's head, and the dead bird glows bright cold white as though it were lit internally. The halo looks like a comic-book illustration of a "seeing stars" punch. But though it might at first seem humorous, Stockman's not trying to be funny. "The hard juxtapositions of elements in my paintings may suggest a sense of irony," he admits, "but I think of these paintings as not being ironic, but rather as being very earnest."

"Plume" is the only one of the five paintings in which Stockman has employed metal leaf. That's a pity, since the bright metallic sheen of the leaf is the perfect counterpoint to the murky gloom of his dark landscapes. In the three remaining oil-on-canvas paintings--"Great Blue Heron," "Bell" and "Giant"--Stockman achieves a similar if less dazzling effect by substituting brilliant white paint for the shiny leaf.

In "Great Blue Heron," the bird of the title is in the foreground of the landscape, behind and to the left of a reclining, androgynous nude. A streak of light comes out of the figure's head and leads the viewer's eye to the purple, blue and white cloud-filled sky at the top of the painting. The striking "Bell" takes up a threatening sky after sundown. Across the bottom is a row of flame-shaped forms in white, while in the sky, the bell of the title is surrounded by a ring of ambiguous shapes. But it's "Giant" that best unites Stockman's drawing and painting styles. On a sienna-and-umber plain, a female nude sits surrounded by a flock of white birds. Her recumbent posture and contrapposto pose help disguise the fact that she is obscenely voluptuous. Floating above her head are a large pair of enormous and grotesque heads, ghostly and vaporous, sketched out in white on the background of the blue and white sky.

Stockman's sublime selection of large canvases is supplemented in the Rule exhibit by a group of closely associated miniatures on paper. These tiny, intimately scaled acrylic-on-paper paintings feature nudes in the landscape. There is also an artist book that includes one of the small paintings in the show, "Tusk," along with several other related pieces. The book, appropriately titled "Miniatures," features an essay by local arts advocate Simon Zalkind and has been hand-bound by Dancing Horse Studio's Nancy Missbach.

Little paintings also fill Don Carleno: Space Art over at Pirate. Like Stockman, Carleno looks to the great landscape tradition while putting a thoroughly contemporary spin on it. In the awkward, two-level Pirate Alley, Carleno is represented by many views of outer space and of alien moons and planets.

Carleno does not indicate on the identification labels which mediums he's working in. His pieces look like highly varnished oil paintings on small pieces of stiffened, unstretched canvas, but they may be acrylics. It would have been nice for Carleno to have let us know what he was using.

The best of these paintings capture constellations. A standout is "Green Nebula," in which a green and pink mass floats in a black ground covered with small white dots. "Supernova" takes a similar approach, with greens, reds and blues suspended in a white-dotted black abyss. Paintings such as "Green Nebula" and "Supernova" appear at first to be abstractions, but they're actually representational and may even have been inspired by the photographic illustrations in astronomy books. This tension between abstraction and representation recalls the markedly similar outer-space paintings of the 1960s and '70s done by the late Denver modernist Vance Kirkland.

Other Carleno paintings join views of space with the terrain of distant planets. In "Moon With Gas Giant," a terra cotta-red mountain is surrounded by a huge, striped green sphere. A similar view is seen in "Red Moon With Galaxy," in which another red mountain sits under a speckled black sky.

Stockman and Carleno are part of a small army of artists around the world attempting to infuse new life into the old landscape form. Some say these painters have ruined the landscape. But what they've really done is bring this antique form--kicking and screaming--into the 1990s.

William Stockman: The Phenomenology of Birds, through June 30 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

Don Carleno: Space Art, through June 15 at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 458-6058.

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