Different Realities

Realism gets a vigorous workout at Robischon.

Just beyond Hempel's works, in the center rooms at Robischon, is Chinoiserie, a solo featuring Christopher Pelley's take on realism in contemporary painting. This is the first time Pelley, a New York artist who also uses photography for his preliminary work, has been the subject of a Denver show. As implied by the title, the Pelley exhibit addresses the influence of China, rather than China itself, and the paintings are a record of his life in New York's Chinatown, where he lived for many years.

The Pelleys have a pop-art quality and are especially reminiscent of the work of Larry Rivers, in particular the juxtaposition of brushy abstract color fields with highly detailed realistic images. But they also relate to the work of Rauschenberg, notably the pieces that incorporate found objects, like "Larger Chinoiserie (Red Bucket)," which includes a flawless rendition in oil of a red plastic bucket as well as an actual red plastic dustpan and brush. These mundane articles are surrounded by images of traditional porcelain vessels scattered across the canvas. Presumably the model for the painted bucket and the actual dustpan and brush were made, like the porcelains, in China. These identifiable objects, which are vaguely arrayed in a still-life presentation, float on top of a series of expressively painted passages in red and yellow. And just for fun, Pelley puts a cloud-dotted sky up in the right top corner.

Most of the Pelleys have a lot of red -- a color long associated with China -- but "Large Chinoiserie (Black Lacquer)" is mostly black, which, come to think of it, is another color associated with China. In this painting, Pelley places fruit, flowers, chopsticks and bowls in an all-over pattern on a scrumptious and thickly painted black field. As suggested by the subtitle, it does recall decorative lacquerwork, but it also reminded me of wallpaper and the work of Fred Tomaselli, neither of which is a shortcoming.

"detour," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on canvas.
"detour," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on canvas.
"Captivating Passage," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.
"Captivating Passage," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.

The last of the three solos, short stories, installed in the Viewing Room Gallery, features recent work by respected Boulder painter Jerry Kunkel. The artist came to the area some thirty years ago to take a job teaching art at the University of Colorado. Kunkel's work has been continuously exhibited in the region since then.

In these very new paintings, Kunkel uses oils on wood and, as he has for many years, looks to pop imagery -- in particular, advertising and commercial displays -- as a stylistic source for his work. Not unlike Hempel and Pelley, Kunkel employs photography as a stage in the creation of his paintings, which tell enigmatic stories, some as long and elaborate as novels.

The epic "stan" series is the most obvious case in point. The group of 36 paintings, hung in a grid six wide and six high, looks at everyday existence as a mundane yet intense experience. The paintings depict Stan, his friends, his lovers and his breakfast foods. The weird little scenes are arranged in a sequence to be read as though the paintings were pages in a book. The story, for no apparent reason, seems to get more tension-filled as it progresses from left to right and from top to bottom. Honestly, though, it's completely unclear what is happening to Stan, or even who Stan is, because Kunkel indicates that he's a fictional Everyman.

Using similar ideas, Kunkel did 25 larger paintings of still-life images, both real and imaginary, accompanied by text reproduced in laser prints that may or may not relate to the images with which it's paired. Space limitations dictated that only a small selection of these paintings be on display in the Robischon show.

To the right of the "stan" paintings is the large oil-on-canvas "detour," which looks like a poster for a 1940s Hollywood movie and is one of only two large paintings in the show. In the foreground are a couple in love: a man -- Stan, as it happens -- and a woman embracing and caressing each other. Behind them is what looks like the Brooklyn Bridge. Set at the surface of the picture, defining the picture plane, are bars of type and a full-color image of a Santa Fe Railroad streamliner. The postcard image of the train looks like it's been tacked onto the rest of the painting, though it hasn't.

Hempel, Pelley and Kunkel are all doing essentially the same things. They're all working with that age-old standby, recognizable imagery. Plus, they all employ photography as an early stage in their paintings -- in a kind of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em spirit, I'm sure. However, it's undeniable that each has his distinctive style, and their respective pieces have completely individual characters.

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