Rear-View Mirror

The Loveland Museum and Gallery surveys Vance Kirkland's notable career.

Oh, I know, there's that horrible hour-long drive. And not only that, but it's been so darn hot.

Well, too bad, because you're going to want to make the trip to the Loveland Museum and Gallery anyway to see the sweeping Vance Kirkland Retrospective. But get moving, because this stunning show closes Sunday.

I've seen a lot of Vance Kirklands over the years, but several of the pieces in this show were new to me. The exhibit was organized by Loveland curator Janice Currier with the help of Hugh Grant, director of the Kirkland Museum in Denver. "Janice came down with a group from Loveland; I showed them the work I had in storage, and then Janice selected the pieces that were ultimately included in the show," says Grant. "She did a wonderful job."

"Concerning Scorpio, 10 Billion Years, BC," oil and water on canvas.
"Concerning Scorpio, 10 Billion Years, BC," oil and water on canvas.


Through July 21
Loveland Museum and Gallery, Fifth and Lincoln, Loveland

Currier's selections span Kirkland's career, from the late 1920s to 1981, the year he died. This period also encompasses the great paradigm shift in American art from realism to abstraction, which took place in the 1940s. That radical change in American art is evident -- and its exact nature fully laid out -- in Kirkland's oeuvre. It's obvious that, rather than representing a revolution for the painter, the road to abstraction was a logical path that he followed incrementally.

Over the decades, Kirkland's work went through a series of easy-to-understand steps that invariably led him to modernism. Apparently, the turn to modernism was not just the purview of New York artists, as some believe, but also of artists here -- and at exactly the same time. Moreover, Kirkland was not alone in the wilds of Colorado; on the contrary, he was part of a lively group of modernists that included Jack Ball, Watson Bidwell, Emerson Woelffer, Al Wynne, Ken Goehring, Mary Chenoweth and Charles Bunnell, among others.

Kirkland was born in 1904 in Convoy, Ohio, a small country town west of Cleveland. In the early twentieth century, Cleveland was a center for art in the Midwest. In 1923, Kirkland, a precocious artist since childhood, entered the prestigious Cleveland School of Art. He earned a diploma in painting from the school in 1928 and went on to do graduate studies at Western Reserve University and the Cleveland School of Education.

In 1929, armed with a Carnegie Foundation grant, Kirkland came to Denver to establish the School of Art at the University of Denver. Though he would eventually be associated with DU for decades, this initial job didn't last long, and he quit DU -- in disgust, mind you -- in 1932. Although his intention was to paint full-time, his students urged him to continue teaching. In response, he founded the Kirkland School of Art; classes, which were accredited by the University of Colorado, took place in his Denver studio, which is now the Kirkland Museum in Capitol Hill. He continued to run the school out of his studio until 1946, when he was rehired by DU and began his long tenure with that institution.

The Loveland show includes many pieces from the first fifteen years of Kirkland's Denver career. It's installed in rough chronological order so that his stylistic development is explicated; to view it this way, visitors must make a hard left immediately after entering the gallery, and this is not clearly indicated.

At the beginning of the show is an engaging watercolor -- an early medium of choice for Kirkland -- done in 1930, a year after he moved to Colorado. In it, Kirkland mixed surrealism with traditional realism, making it a fairly early example of American surrealism. (He had already been to Spain and France, two major hot spots of the genre.) Titled "Mountain Ruins," the painting is a moonlit depiction of a tumbledown house in the mountains. The nightshade colors Kirkland used -- lots of black and blue -- are marvelous, and the juxtaposition of these dark hues with white heightens the otherworldly effect of the scene.

Surrealism was a leitmotif in other Kirklands from the 1930s and '40s, but most of his work from that time was more in line with mainstream regionalism. The regionalist style was dominant then, and it flourished across the country, especially in cities other than New York.

As it happened, a regionalist art colony was installed nearby, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where the likes of Boardman Robinson, Adolf Dehn and Arnold Blanch were working and teaching. Kirkland watercolors, such as the gorgeous "Riders in the Garden of the Gods," from 1944, are apparently related to what could be called "the Colorado School." Interestingly, that sub-style represents a type of regionalism that differs greatly from its Midwestern variants.

By the mid-1940s, Kirkland was creating abstract surrealist compositions made up of reassembled details from his regionalist landscapes; these were done in gouache, an opaque watercolor medium. A good example is 1947's "Rocky Mountain Abstraction," in which jagged, swirling forms in black and white based on elements seen in the older "Garden of the Gods" piece are placed against a background of quasi-constructivist hard-edged shapes.

Even further from the regionalist landscapes and closer to pure abstraction is "Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," an oil on linen from 1948. Kirkland uses the hard-edged margins of the paint to divide up the picture's elements -- in this case, the mountains and the clouds -- which are flattened and tend to disappear under the weight of the overall abstract design to which Kirkland has subjected them.

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