Opposites Attract

John Hull and Jason Martin make an unlikely -- but wonderful -- match.

In the year or so that it has been open, Ron Judish Fine Arts in LoDo has established itself as a key player in the contemporary art world in Denver. Its well-thought-out shows always feature an eclectic mix of the work of top local talents and nationally celebrated artists, and the installation is always perfect. It's just like a little museum.

Maybe its tremendous success is the reason the elite gallery has found itself the subject of a rumor that it is closing. "I'd like to know who's been saying we're going to close, because we're not," says a justifiably perturbed Judish during a recent conversation at his gallery. "If I find out who it is..."

It's not clear who's behind the slur, which, if believed, would cause undue concern for Judish's clients and artists alike. All I can say is that everyone who passed on the rumor to me (which I never believed and, in fact, had not even called Judish to verify) was connected in some way or another to one of Judish's crosstown competitors, who will remain nameless. (Personally, I think it would be great if this kind of thing would stop so that hot art-world gossip could return to the more typical, appealing and appropriate subject of who's sleeping with whom.)

Not only is Judish not closing, but the pair of solo shows on display there, John Hull: Recent Paintings and Jason Martin: Paintings, are clearly among the best exhibits around -- and that's quite a distinction in a year in which the local scene is crowded like never before with excellent shows.

At first glance, the pairing of Hull and Martin seems absurd, because Hull's style is narrative and representational while Martin's is minimal (neo-minimal?) and non-objective. But there are also similarities between the two. Both are pushing the edges of established realms in order to create contemporary pieces, both are more familiar to gallery patrons in Manhattan than in LoDo, and both have works on display right now at the Denver Art Museum -- so Judish isn't the only venue to pair the two. Hull's "Aftermath," an acrylic on canvas, is on the DAM's seventh floor, which is dedicated to American painting and sculpture. Martin's "Rodeo," an oil on aluminum, is at the entrance to the Stanton Galleries on the first floor, where modern and contemporary art is presented. The relative placement of the pieces, divided as they are by six floors, well expresses the artists' stylistic differences.

These differences come into clearer focus at Judish since their work has been placed closer together: John Hull is in the front, and Jason Martin in the back. The two shows meld together in the middle, where they overlap, with one Hull facing a pair of Martins.

Hull spent seven summers teaching at Colorado College as a visiting artist before he moved to the area last year to be the art-department chair at the University of Colorado at Denver. When he got the job, he was already an established painter with a degree from Yale, where he taught for many years. Hull has since relinquished his administrative duties at UCD and devoted himself exclusively to teaching drawing and painting.

Although he is no stranger to the state, Hull was unfamiliar to the exhibition-going public here. But he instantly entered the pantheon of the region's great contemporary painters last spring when John Hull: Narrative Paintings at the Arvada Center knocked everyone out with its brilliance and led to the DAM's decision to buy "Aftermath" for its permanent collection.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hull's paintings is their distinctive content, which a writer for the New Yorkercalled a combination of "Corot and Quentin Tarantino." The description is fairly apt, since Hull refers to the old masters, including Corot, especially in terms of his compositions and the naturalistic palette he prefers. His brushwork is gestural and expressive as he unerringly carries out the elements of his paintings. But the subject matter is edgy, looking at things like war and violent crime.

The pieces at Judish are more subtle, but they also take on a difficult topic: the dead-end kids who populate rural America. Like some of the paintings in Hull's previous show, many of these are related to one another and seem to be telling a story, with the same figures appearing in different paintings. But artist Hull is quick to add some provisos. "The paintings are not meant to be a chronicle, though they depict narrative events," he says. "They have been sequenced aesthetically and not chronologically. I could tell you which ones I painted first, but what's happening in the paintings is continually happening, like the events in a William Faulkner novel." And, like Faulkner, Hull attempts to "tell hard stories in an appealing way."

As it turns out, the stories are about Hull's own coming of age. "They tell the story of young love," he says. "When I was a senior in high school, my parents moved from Philomath, Oregon, to Buffalo, New York. At the time, I thought about staying, getting a job in a paper mill and settling down with my high school girlfriend. Lucky for me, she didn't want to marry some guy working in a mill, and it didn't happen."

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