Popping Off

The Balas and Sweeney duet at Robischon really has something to say.

Two of the more unusual paintings, "The Nature of Sand" and "Depth Charge," have been hung in the space beyond the front room. Both are concerned with the seashore, and both incorporate actual beach towels, which are used as color fields and occupy the top half of each painting. In both of these, Balas captures -- as a voyeur would -- a group of young men frolicking in the surf and on the beach.

The figures are seen from a distance, but Balas nonetheless conveys their obvious sensuality and sexual power. This section of Rough Draft could be nicknamed Rough Trade; I'm sure that's what Balas had in mind when he painted them.

All of the Balas paintings are interesting from several perspectives, not least of which is the way Balas combines essentially realistic, accurately painted scenes with conceptual elements. Such mixing of concerns has always been in evidence in Balas's work, but never as clearly as in the juxtaposition of painted beach boys and actual towels.

"The Nature of Sand (#2)," by Jack Balas, oil, enamel and towel on canvas.
"The Nature of Sand (#2)," by Jack Balas, oil, enamel and towel on canvas.
"Art...Hopes for Beauty," by Gary Sweeney, discarded signs.
"Art...Hopes for Beauty," by Gary Sweeney, discarded signs.

Again, it's not hard to see why Robischon would put Balas and Sweeney together. Like Balas, Sweeney uses text as a key part of his oeuvre, and he refers to contemporary culture in his work. But that's where the similarities end.

Sweeney was born in 1952 in Southern California and now lives in Southwest Texas. But for a decade or so in the late '80s and early '90s, he pitched his tent right here in the Mile High City and played an important role in Denver's art world while he was here.

Based on his winning personality and his neo-pop conceptual style, Sweeney became a star of the alternative scene and was a key member of the Pirate co-op, where he presented several memorable solo shows. I can immediately recall his installation inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and his personal and sociological examination of the Boy Scouts of America.

Sweeney is a post-pop artist, and he's always been interested in the tension between highbrow contemporary art and lowbrow popular culture -- especially the campy stuff from the mid-twentieth century.

In many ways, the high point of the Denver phase of Sweeney's career was his public-art commission for Denver International Airport. Titled "America...Why I Love Her," the work comprises a pair of monumental maps of the United States. They are made of routed and dyed wood and dotted with framed photos of some of America's most offbeat tourist attractions.

The two maps that make up "America...Why I Love Her" are installed across from one another, just off the main-terminal lobby at DIA. From the start, they have been among the most popular pieces in the airport's mostly lackluster art collection. Ironically, by the time "America..." was completed, Sweeney was living in San Antonio. In a weird twist of fate, the opening of DIA marked the unveiling of Sweeney's first major commission even as it forced him to move. You see, Sweeney works for Continental Airlines, and when the airport opened as a hub for United, Continental pulled most of its employees out of Denver.

I really hated seeing Sweeney leave, and catching up on what he's been doing since then makes me lament his absence all the more.

In his four Rough Draft pieces, Sweeney has transcribed quotations using words and lettering from found signs. Although these works are rooted in the same concepts that informed earlier pieces such as "America...Why I Love Her," the sign compositions clearly represent a different direction.

This is evident in "True Revolutions in Art Restore More Than They Destroy," which incorporates found imagery -- such as the cartoon artist at the easel on the "Art" sign -- and found graphic design -- as in the "True" taken from a True Value hardware-store sign. The quotation is by American poet Louise Bogan, as cited by Sweeney in the piece.

In some cases, the quotations take on added meaning simply because of Sweeney's method. For example, "There Are No Images of Reality Any More" uses a quote from the grandfather of minimalism, early-twentieth-century suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich. The meaning is specific (Malevich was replacing representational imagery with geometric shapes), but Sweeney confounds the artist's intention, because nothing could be more representational -- or more abstract -- than these found words and letters.

The same kind of commentary is passively made by Sweeney regarding a quote by Thomas Eakins, an important realist from the turn of the nineteenth century, in "Art Strives for Form and Hopes for Beauty." Though this piece is hardly conventionally beautiful, the beauty it does convey derives from Sweeney's content and his chosen form.

The marvelous and thoroughly thought-provoking Rough Draft combines two artists interested in exploring intellectual and narrative content in visual ways. Balas does it with painting, while Sweeney uses assemblage. Considering the way the two artists go together, I'd say that Rough Draft is pretty smooth.

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