Inside, Outside

In visual art, representations of the outside world have a formidable history--some 14,000 years' worth. Which, of course, creates a problem for contemporary artists: How can they record external reality and still do something new? To meet this challenge, painters in recent years have advanced a variety of artistic strategies, including a broad-based surrealist revival, a renewed interest in Sixties sources such as pop art and photo-realism, and an increasing emphasis on advertising art and comic strips--related phenomena --as inspiration for imagery.

Two provocative group shows at the always reliable Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities rise to the challenge of making realistic painting lively and new. Occupying about half of the expansive main-floor galleries is Still Reality: Narrative and Interior Paintings, whose title would seem to advertise a stodgy still-life exhibit, but that's definitely not the case. Instead, Arvada Center curator Susan Sagara, who organized Still Reality, took a wider view and also included figural and landscape paintings. The four well-known, accomplished and compatible painters she chose for the show all employ representational imagery, but none use it to make traditional paintings.

First up is Jerry Kunkel, the longtime University of Colorado fine art professor who's been exhibiting around here for more than twenty years. Kunkel is represented by several very impressive, multi-part paintings that feature enigmatic subject matter. The show opens with a pair of large Kunkels: "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" and, hung across from it, "She Wanted Everything to Count," both done in oil on assembled small panels of masonite. For these pieces, Kunkel has created individual paintings with clearly defined margins on individual panels; the tiny paintings, which are all the same size, feature different subject matter (although most show the figure). Each of these panels has been pierced at all four corners so they can be attached to the wall with prominent tacks; Kunkel makes unlikely juxtapositions of the images by simply lining them up and arranging them in an inverted stair-step grid. Kunkel's painting style, which has taken many twists and turns over the years, here combines the character of photographs and the expressive and naive painterly techniques. His sources range from the old masters to pop art.

Kunkel uses many of the same sources in the marvelous "Some Things Are Almost Impossible"--but rather than in a grid, here a dozen square paintings are lined up horizontally. Running below is a typeset narrative caption on a black ground that takes up the topic of the impossible. In another Kunkel piece, "She Got the Whole," five individual paintings are again hung in a row, but instead of being arranged tightly, they're widely spaced on the wall. While most of these five paintings reveal different views of a man, including an erotic torso detail (perhaps Kunkel himself), "She Got the Whole" is more than a portrait series. Another panel captures a birdbath in twilight; yet another a pair of hands that cradle a globe, which might relate the piece back to its title. And each of the images is "framed" in a gold-leaf field with a real frame around it.

There's a definite dark mood to Kunkel's approach, and though it's difficult to say precisely what these paintings are about, they evoke broken relationships--and provoke considerable thought. Many artists now use this multi-part format, but based on the pieces shown here, Kunkel is one of the best at using it effectively.

Beyond the Kunkels, the soaring central gallery holds a group of large photo-realist paintings by another Boulder artist, Linda Lowry. Although Lowry teaches art at Arapahoe Community College, her paintings are miles away from that workaday world and capture interiors that reflect a life of luxury and beauty. In the striking oil-on-canvas "Philae's Temple," Lowry records a beautifully appointed room complete with grand piano. But even though she's clearly based this painting on a photograph, she has radically altered the perspective through unconventional foreshortening. The view seems to be through a fish-eye lens (the photo on which the painting is based was likely taken with a wide-angle lens), and the vertiginous effect leaves the viewer feeling as though he might literally fall into the painting.

Also dizzying is Lowry's "Bucking Tradition," another oil on canvas that illustrates a dining room appointed with traditional furniture and modern art. All of Lowry's paintings shown here include pictures of other paintings. In "Bucking Tradition," it's a non-objective color-field work, which Lowry renders realistically--in the process creating, perhaps unintentionally, some conceptual content by making a representational version of an abstraction.

The back gallery features the work of Denver's Scott Greenig and Margaretta Gilboy. Like Lowry, both Greenig and Gilboy take photo-realist-based approaches to their work.

Although Greenig is the only artist who contributes landscape paintings to Still Reality, he's long given this traditional form a tweak by dividing his paintings into different parts that give the viewer various perspectives on related scenes. For "High Tide," an acrylic on wood that's a vertical diptych, on the top and functioning as the background is a seaside view; on the bottom, serving as the foreground, is a pile of dead fish, stacked neatly as the day's catch. The two panels are divided by gilt moldings placed within the traditional frame. Another Greenig diptych, "Burning of the Grand Banks," an acrylic and mixed media on wood, places a blazing prairie--in a scene that's mostly sky--next to a tiny realistic model of a canoe.

In "Margin," a self-portrait in acrylic on wood, Greenig puts himself in front of a wall of well-known movie posters, including those for Psycho and Bride of Frankenstein. This piece is uncharacteristic of Greenig's other work. It's so meticulously detailed that it looks like a color photograph rather than a painting, and the palette is dominated by fire-engine reds and taxicab yellows.

Across the room are paintings by Gilboy, who now lives in Philadelphia but has maintained her connections to this area since receiving her MFA at CU in 1981. Several of Gilboy's paintings are dense still-life compositions that include realist and surrealist elements. In the oil-on-linen "A Little Offering," she places a pair of juicy-looking purple plums on a pink tray in the foreground; in the background is a distorted woman's face. In another oil on linen, "Deep Blue Sea," two golden apples are seen up close at the bottom of the painting and also just above in their mirrored reflection.

In many ways, the show upstairs in the second-floor galleries, Woods, organized by Kathy Andrews, the Arvada Center's head curator, is almost an extension of Still Reality. This exhibit, too, has a misleading title: Woods is not about forests, but rather about the nature of the material itself. The organizing themes of Still Reality and Woods are so open-ended that the participants could easily be shifted from one to another. And Kunkel even paints on masonite, a wood product, while Greenig uses actual wood.

Instead, Woods starts with a thorough exploration of Denver sculptor Carley Warren's "Branches, Traps and Cages" series of abstract wall-mounted sculptures. Warren begins by cutting up machine-planed dowels that she then reassembles into twiglike configurations. In "Branches, Traps and Cages #7," the first piece in this show, Warren intertwines three of the dowels reformulated as twigs and nestles within them a form made of woven pipe cleaners that recalls a bird.

Most of Warren's sculptures have essentially this same format: three wavering horizontal lines with an abstract, if evocative, woven form caught among them. In some pieces, Warren has let the natural color of the dowels show through; in others she uses painted finishes. Her technique is highly polished, with the joinery and the finish of the wood done precisely, as is the tying, bending and weaving of the fuzzy pipe cleaners. "Branches, Traps and Cages #11" is the only vertically oriented sculpture in the show, and it's interesting to note that her formula works just as well, if not better, turned on its side.

Beyond the section devoted to Warren are some luscious recent paintings by Judith Lightfield, a Red Rocks Community College art instructor. Her link to the Woods theme is twofold: She paints on masonite, and her chosen subject is trees. Lightfield's paintings are nearly abstract with thick, heavy smears of paint; the trees, painted brown, are glimpsed as if through a haze that joins the ground to the sky. Her palette is stunning, recalling a sunset in a Maxfield Parrish painting, all pinks, teals and golds, and she imbues her colors with a remarkable degree of luminosity. Under the gallery's track lights, these landscapes gleam.

In "Negative Space," an acrylic on board, Lightfield sets two groves of trees on either side of her vertical composition, then guides the viewer's eyes up the middle and into the sky, which dominates the painting. The scrumbled character of the sky, with its rusty pink clouds against a light blue background, suggests both the old masters and the abstract expressionists--quite a feat.

Woods closes out with paintings and watercolors by Englewood's Shelley Hull, which are displayed off to the side. Hull, whose style is both simple and sophisticated, juxtaposes nature with figures and machinery. In many of these paintings, she creates compositions that have a large central element bracketed by a pair of complementary forms, all of which are set over a defined area across the bottom. This hieratic structure has its roots in the altar screens of the Middle Ages that show the dead Christ at the bottom surmounted by the crucifixion, with Christ in the center and the two thieves on either side. But Hull substitutes pine cones, trees and car parts for the sacred subjects.

Nowhere does Hull better incorporate this contrasting of dissimilar images than in a series of recent acrylic-and-colored-pencil-on-paper pieces from her "Mechanics of Desire" series. Here Hull sets drawings of engines and machinery within a landscape populated by trees that have grown together and become intertwined. Given the title, these pieces seem to be about the differences between men and women.

The artists in Still Reality and Woods take myriad approaches to making realistic painting vital. Whether they succeed is open to debate, but their work is certainly fun to view--and what could be more worthwhile?

Still Reality: Narrative and Interior Paintings , through August 30, and Woods, through August 23, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

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