The Wild, Wild West

The earliest paintings are two from Hull's "War of the End of the World" series, done in 1989 and 1990. "Machines of Blood," hung on the canted back wall, is a frontal view of a marching group of men carrying a large crucifix above their heads. At first they're reminiscent of the Penitentes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, but on closer inspection the men look more like battle-weary soldiers than religious pilgrims. This juxtaposition of sacred imagery with allusions to warfare is expressed, either explicitly or implicitly, in most of Hull's paintings. "Patrol," the second painting from "End of the World," is one of the great works displayed here--but it's marooned among much newer paintings in the center room. In this piece, a group of riders in Civil War-era uniforms are seen clustered around the burnt-out hulk of a car. Hull uses a dusty palette to carry out the desert scenery in the background, as well as the figures and horses.

Hull's style is a hybrid, with brushy, painterly flourishes setting off straightforward realism. Although his pieces are freely painted, they crisply and convincingly convey recognizable subjects with an astonishing level of detail. "Flannery O'Connor pointed out that if you don't care about dust, you shouldn't be an artist," Hull said during a February gallery chat. "People are made from dust, and these paintings are made from dust with an acrylic binder."

His skill at detailing is shown off in the back room, in a group of paintings from his 1994 "Alamo" series. These are major pieces with complicated compositions, populated by scores of figures and hundreds of pictorial elements. According to Hull, they refer not to the Mexican-American war, as it would appear, but rather to his own experiences in the service. "As a kid, I was inspired by John Wayne, who starred in the movie The Alamo," he says. "It's why I wound up in the Marine Corps. In the movie, Wayne gets blown up and becomes a hero. From what I learned in the service, I know it's not the way war is." To create this series, Hull traveled to Texas to make studies of the Alamo; the figures are based on sketches of Marine Corps buddies and other images from life.

These paintings depict the bloody aftermath of the pitched battle. In "Fall of the Alamo," Hull shows the advancing Mexican soldiers at the moment the Texas fort was taken. Their vanquished foes lie at their feet, littering the forecourt of the bombed-out building. Hull's handling of the lights and darks in the dusk-set scene is fabulous: In the manner of the old masters, he leads the viewer's eyes from the bottom left to the top right--and back around again. He does this through the movement of the soldiers and the bright white clouds at the horizon that frame the fort. Equally dramatic is "Pyre," in which Hull puts stacks of flaming corpses in the foreground next to a division of Mexican soldiers who are carrying out their grim, fiery task off to the bottom left. Unlike "Fall of the Alamo," "Pyre" is brightly lit under a cloudless morning sky.

In a very different mood from these monumental paintings are a group from Hull's "Backstretch" series, which captures the world of horseracing. An avid fan of the sport--"I've lost a ton of money at the track," Hull says--he spent two weeks in 1995 hanging out at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. "I did a million sketches. I was especially interested in the life of the jockeys, most of whom come from the same small town in Mexico. The backstretch, and not the racetrack itself, was like its own small town," he remembers. Compared to Hull's other paintings shown here, the composition of the "Backstretch" series is simple. In "3/4 Chute," a horse and rider amble across the red dirt track; in the background are grandstands accented by palm trees. "Long Shadows" places the horse and rider off to the bottom left, while the rest of the painting is filled with railings and grandstands.

The majority of the Narrative Paintings show consists of works from Hull's recent "Colorado Crime" series, some of which were completed just days before the exhibit opened in January. Although they fill the front room and most of the center, the "Crime" paintings have not been hung in any particular order. Still, the sixteen small landscape studies shown together in the front gallery offer a glimpse of Hull's methods. They record views he encountered on a car trip through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, scenes that were later used as the settings for many of his larger paintings depicting crimes and unsavory behavior.

Hull's landscapes may have a photographic accuracy, but he doesn't use photos as studies for his paintings. "I'm just too nineteenth-century about it," he said during his gallery talk. "When I find a scene that's interesting to me, I stop and paint it. If everything goes right, it only takes about an hour to do a small study--but rarely does it go right.

"When I started the 'Colorado Crime' paintings, I hung these studies on one wall of my studio," he adds. "On the opposite wall I hung sketches I made of people--which I do all the time. The paintings are combinations of the studies and the sketches, which are combined in a variety of ways. It may not be too efficient, but it is effective."

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