Political Cartoons

African-American art is up at DU, while Mizel surveys the Jewish roots of the comics.

Using politics to create art requires a skill for balancing aesthetics with philosophy, since political artwork must be visually successful while also conveying a message. The problem is that most artists can't pull it off -- something that's very apparent in the art world, where bad message art is so easy to come by. But some artists most definitely can, as demonstrated in the dynamic duet ROBERT COLESCOTT & GLENN LIGON -- From the Logan Collection, now on display at the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery in the Shwayder Art Building on the University of Denver campus.

Art with a political edge is a specialty of the Myhren, reflecting the interests of gallery director Shannen Hill, the DU art historian who runs the place. Hill's scholarly focus is what she calls "the art of the African Diaspora," which includes, but is not limited to, African-American art. Colescott and Ligon are prominent African-American artists, making the pairing a natural for Hill. But there is more of a subtext to this political show than just African-American content, as indicated by the title's reference to the Logan Collection.

Named for Kent and Vicki Logan, prominent collectors of contemporary art who maintain a seasonal home in Vail, the collection comprises substantial fractional gifts made to the Denver Art Museum. The largesse of the Logans -- their gift includes more than 200 pieces -- has been shown off in part at the DAM, in last year's Retrospectacle and in Full Frontal, currently on display on the museum's fifth floor. Colescott & Ligon is the first in a planned series of exhibits that will explore the DAM's Logan Collection at the Myhren.

"Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy With 
Bubbles (version 3) #1," by Glenn Ligon, silkscreen ink 
and flashe on canvas.
"Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy With Bubbles (version 3) #1," by Glenn Ligon, silkscreen ink and flashe on canvas.
"What if Chris Rock Performed at a Bar Mitzvah," by 
Drew Friedman, ink and watercolor on paper.
"What if Chris Rock Performed at a Bar Mitzvah," by Drew Friedman, ink and watercolor on paper.


ROBERT COLESCOTT & GLENN LIGON - From the Logan Collection
Through February 27, Victoria H. Myhren Gallery, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 303-871-2846

No Joke: The Spirit of American Comic Books and No Yokel: The Spirit of Denver Comic Artists
Through March 28, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-399-266

This new partnership is quite a deal for DU, and the idea for it came from Trygve Myhren, a DU donor who helps underwrite the gallery named for his wife, Victoria. "Victoria and Trygve have a personal friendship with the Logans, and they really did make this happen in a big way," Hill says. It was just last spring when the Myhrens suggested the idea to the Logans, and, by summer, Hill was taking on the task of organizing this first show.

Because Colescott and Ligon are stylistically very different from each other, at first I wondered if their work would look good together. After all, Colescott's pieces are expressionist and sloppy, while Ligon's are mechanical and crisp. I'm amazed to report that in spite of these antithetical qualities, the pairing is absolutely stunning.

Colescott, who came to the fore of national contemporary art back in the 1970s and '80s, is the old master, so it seems right to start with him. Associated with a whole generation of neo-expressionist painters, Colescott put a personal twist on the movement by including, among other things, racist caricatures in his paintings. He's quoted in the show's catalogue as saying that his work is "not about race," but "about perception," and caricatures are the ideal means to carry out that program.

There are half a dozen Colescotts in the show, the most significant of which is "School Days," a major acrylic on canvas from 1988 that depicts grotesque cartoons of students, most of them black, with one aiming a gun at the viewer and another having exaggeratedly bulbous lips. Also remarkable is the painting's rich palette of deep green, yellow and red tones. Interestingly, "School Days" is not a Logan Collection piece; it was given to the DAM by Nancy Tieken, an important donor who no longer lives in Denver. As Hill explains, the Logan Collection pieces form the basis of this show, but objects from other collections were used to supplement them.

The Ligons come right out of neo-pop, and in many of them, Andy Warhol's influence is undeniable, particularly in "Hands," a silkscreen-ink-on-canvas diptych from 1997 that's more than twenty feet long. Also very Warholian is "Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy With Bubbles (version 3) #1," from 2000. Some of the Ligons are more conceptual than pop, as in the series of ten lithographs from 1993 collectively titled "Runaways," in which antebellum illustrations of slaves are combined with reprints of newspaper ads from the period offering rewards for the missing individuals.

Kent and Vicki Logan have been doing a good deal for the art world in Colorado (and in their other home state, California), so it would be foolish of us not to take advantage. Hill says attendance has been light, so many haven't yet done so. I know it's a nightmare to park on the DU campus, but I assure you, this show is worth the trouble.

Not far from DU, at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, the situation is very different -- and not just because there are plenty of parking spaces. The current shows there have been drawing big crowds because of the mass popularity of their shared topic: the art of comic books. In the Singer Gallery is No Joke: The Spirit of American Comic Books, and in the Balcony Gallery is No Yokel: The Spirit of Denver Comic Artists. Even if you're not particularly interested in comics -- and I'm really not -- there's a lot here that's intriguing.

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