The Wild, Wild West

When John Hull moved to Denver last year to become the head of the art department at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, the city didn't gain just another academic. It also netted itself an important artist, as shown in John Hull Narrative Paintings, Hull's regional debut exhibit at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

Hull was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1952. His father taught physics at Yale University, but the family soon moved to the rural northwest when Hull's father accepted a teaching job at Oregon State University. Growing up in Oregon, the only kind of fine art Hull was exposed to was the religious imagery of the Catholic Church, especially the crucifix. More important to Hull, though, was the limited mass media available in the area at the time. "The Catholic Church has an attachment to imagery and has supported many fine paintings," Hull says. "But the biggest influence on me as a kid were the covers of pulp novels for sale at the drugstore. I'm old enough to remember when paintings were done for book covers."

As a youngster, Hull wasn't seriously interested in art. He came to painting, which he today refers to as his "vocation" or "calling," much later. In fact, when Hull entered Yale as an undergraduate in 1971, he had no intention of becoming an artist: He wanted to pursue writing, and his declared major was English. After a year, however, Hull dropped out of Yale, gave up his student deferment and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

It's hard to overstate how out of step this move was with other Yale students. "To me it was a moral decision," he says. "I believed in our country, and I had a certain level of commitment to it, plus there was the good war our parents had served in." And he was also naively romantic, Hull says now.

Hull lucked out. Unlike many of his fellow leathernecks, he did not wind up in Vietnam, but on a ship in the Mediterranean. "One of our first ports of call was Venice. They let us out on the Piazza San Marco. With a couple of buddies, I went into the Doge's Palace and started looking at the paintings. My friends got bored and left, but I didn't. After I'd been there a while, a custodian, an old Italian man, approached me. He took me to his office in a corner of the basement and drew me a map to the other museums in Venice--the Academy, the Peggy Guggenheim house--and I went everywhere," remembers Hull. As he toured the many museums of Venice, he picked up postcards of his favorite paintings. Then, during his long months at sea, Hull copied the postcards and so produced his first drawings.

After leaving the Marines, Hull returned to Yale and completed his English degree. "I was one of only three Vietnam-era vets on the whole campus," he says ruefully. Then he moved on to graduate school at the University of Illinois to pursue painting. It was there that art historian Marcel Francesco exposed Hull to German expressionist Max Beckman, who remains an important inspiration. Hull also lists as influences Illinois painter C.W. Briggs, Rembrandt, "of course, Goya" and Frederic Remington, "who I had looked at even before I ever considered being an artist because his work was used on the covers of pulp novels."

Although Hull refers to his paintings as landscapes, they also include human figures--as you might guess from his list of artistic ancestors. It's this figural element that injects his work with the narrative content referred to in the exhibition's title. "I've always been a figurative painter," says Hull. And that was a characteristic that gave him trouble in graduate school in the late 1970s, when abstract or, alternately, photo-based works were the only things considered appropriate for contemporary painters. "Once a teacher in graduate school said to me, 'John, you're a modern guy--you have long hair, you wear jeans. Why don't you paint abstracts?' I said to him, 'I'd rather drive a truck.'"

In retrospect, Hull was backing the right horse. Since the 1980s, figural-style painting of various stripes has been one of the hottest trends in the fine arts, even for a time displacing the preeminence of abstraction. By the late '80s, Hull's work was being exhibited and collected nationally and he'd secured representation by Tatistcheff and Company, on tony West 57th Street in New York. Although the pieces in John Hull Narrative Paintings came straight from Hull's home studio in Arapahoe County, they're technically on loan from Tatistcheff.

The exhibit fills the three large north galleries on the lower level of the Arvada Center. The installation isn't ideal. Virginia Folkestad's fabulous Musical Chairs shares the lower level and intrudes on the Hull show in two ways. To complement Folkestad's piece, the approach to this level is dimly lit--a poor introduction to Hull's work. The rooms are bright enough inside the Hull show, but the whirring of electric motors, another Musical Chairs feature, can still be heard. There are other problems that can't be blamed on Folkestad. For example, the hanging is somewhat disorienting, with the oldest paintings installed in the last of the three rooms and the newest ones up front. And while paintings from the same series are usually assembled together, there are enough exceptions to completely disrupt any kind of cogent chronological flow. The best way to see this show is to start from the back and sort out the various series for yourself.

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."

One of the things that make the "Colorado Crime" paintings so compelling is the way Hull uses the majesty of the scenery to frame the ignoble activity that occurs in its midst. The compositions that result are more than a little unnerving. As paintings, these pieces are beautiful, but as narratives they're pretty ugly. The ironically titled "The Friends of Old Frank" is set in an isolated corner of the San Luis Valley, under a leaden, cloud-filled sky. The action, which takes place in the middle of the picture, is cast in heavy shadows. A kneeling man (presumably Old Frank) is about to be murdered by two gun-toting thugs who tower over him, their blue pickup just to the left. In "Side Street," two armed men, separated by a beat-up sedan, are about to confront one another, apparently over a woman.

While Hull's paintings look fairly traditional on one level, the violent and disturbing subjects he often chooses to paint give them a real edge. And like the Catholic works he saw as a child and again as a Marine in Venice, they're frequently charged with eroticism--even though women rarely appear in the paintings at the Arvada Center. That's because a recent series depicting intimate relationships between men and women wasn't included. "They're interiors, and this show's about the landscape," Hull explains. He plans to exhibit those paintings next year at the Emmanuel Gallery.

In the meantime, though, John Hull Narrative Paintings, which closes this weekend, serves as a fine introduction to a talent who's already a Colorado landmark.

John Hull Narrative Paintings, through April 3 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 303-431-3939.

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