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Jerry Kunkel's name is well known in these parts: He's been on the art faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder for more than thirty years, and for a while in the 1970s, he fronted the punk band Joey Vane and the Scissors. But though many people have heard of him -- and some have even heard him -- far fewer have actually seen his artwork. Kunkel's exhibition drought began to break in the spring of 1999, however, when the Robischon Gallery presented a small Kunkel solo. Now he's at it again with an enormous show of recent paintings at Robischon called Jerry Kunkel: Conscious Ground, which has been installed in the nooks and crannies of the gallery's front section.
Born in 1944 in Mansfield, Ohio, Kunkel's recollections of his childhood aren't fond, but he's come to see the humor of life in a factory town. "I saw pictures of white snow, but I thought snow was orange," he laughs. "Mansfield was one of the most industrial places you've ever seen. My dad used to bitch about the paint peeling off his car -- it was acid rain or something, and he thought it was cheap paint! We didn't know about pollution then."
Despite "bad grades and being a rebel," Kunkel got into Ashland College in Ashland, Ohio, where he studied studio art. It was a natural for him. "Since I was old enough to hold a pencil, I could draw things," he says. After graduation, he went on to Southern Illinois University, where he first became aware of racism and got involved in the local civil rights movement. "It was probably under my nose all along -- but it was in Carbondale [Illinois] that I began to realize that things were really messed up," he says.
In 1968, with a brand-new MFA, Kunkel got his first teaching job, at Findley College in Findley, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, he met Roland Reiss, a teacher at CU, and Reiss told him about an opening in the art department there. "The only thing I knew about Boulder was that Walter Cronkite had done a report on long hair on men, and it was filmed in Boulder, which sounded good," Kunkel says, pulling out his 1969 CU faculty ID card, which shows the artist with long hair. He found his element in Boulder's counterculture and became involved in the city's large anti-Vietnam War movement.
In the '70s, Kunkel worked in a hippie-friendly style that featured dense, lyrical drawings with enigmatic and magical elements in the form of representational images, including the figure. "I did a whole series on Merlin the Magician as a teenager. You know, with all the raging hormones. The [Denver] art museum has one of them. They are abstract, but with naturalistic elements." An art critic for the Los Angeles Times compared Kunkel's work to that of California artist William Wiley, something that Kunkel says "really bummed me out."
As a result, Kunkel abandoned drawing in 1982 and began to create photo-based work. For the next ten years he made large-format color photographs using recognizable objects montaged with text. Photography interested him because of the conceptual issues raised by the medium itself. "A photo is perceived to be real, but it isn't," he says, adding that a photo is an art object that doesn't reflect objective reality but rather the subjective eye of the photographer. But Kunkel missed what he calls "the touch of my hand," and so in 1992, he went back to the easel and oil paints.
Most of the paintings in the show at Robischon, like those in his earlier outing, are multipanel compositions sporting representational images painted more or less traditionally. But while the pieces from the first show were dark and referred to Baroque paintings in both subject matter and palette, the newer paintings are notably lighter and brighter. "I concentrated on jumping the color a lot," says Kunkel. Also unlike the earlier paintings, which were set in some remote historic past, the latest batch, which date from late 1999 and earlier this year, clearly concern present-day events.
The majority of the paintings are made up of two or more painted panels joined together to form an individual work. Each panel has been painted individually, with its own imagery. Kunkel's goal in linking different images is to lay out pictorial narratives -- telling stories with pictures. But the meanings of these stories are hard to decipher, even with Kunkel's free-association explanations. "The paintings, with their juxtapositions, all come out of my unfinished novel -- it might never be finished -- 'Shaving in the Dark.' The title says it all: It's about the impossibility of doing things," he says.
The novel is not a written one, but a painted one. Made up of nearly 200 small paintings lined up to form a single piece that will be more than fifty feet long, "Shaving in the Dark" will tell Kunkel's life story. "It's about everything I can think of at the age of 56, so in one sense, it's an autobiography," he says.
He's not kidding. There are several perceivably distinct currents in Conscious Ground that concern a wide range of subjects, from the landscape to toy action figures. All of the pieces have been painted in the same representational style, and Kunkel's photography background is obvious. Instead of painting scenes from nature, Kunkel paints from photographs, and the flatness of the photo original comes through in the finished pictures. Unlike many artists who use photographic models, Kunkel doesn't delve into hyper-realism, but instead uses traditional representation in the academic style. What separates his paintings from contemporary neo-traditional ones are the unusual connections he makes between one subject and another, and the tight, non-traditional cropping he prefers.
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