By Show and Tell
By Byron Graham
By Jamie Siebrase
By Bree Davies
By Zoe Yabrove
By Zoe Yabrove
By Jamie Siebrase
By Emilie Johnson
If I were asked to come up with a list of the most significant contemporary artists working in Colorado, Floyd Tunson would not only be on it, but he'd be near the top. The Manitou Springs-based artist, who taught for decades as a high school art teacher in Colorado Springs, has been exhibiting his intelligent and accomplished neo-pop paintings, prints and installations since the 1970s. Coinciding with a major survey of his work of the last decade or so that's on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Denver's own Sandy Carson Gallery is presenting Rudiments, a solo made up of some of Tunson's recent abstracts. It's one of two single-artist shows at the gallery right now. The other is Lines of Position, which features sculptures by Louisiana ceramic artist Jeremy Jernegan.
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Many of the paintings in Rudiments are enormous, and several are on multiple panels. The Jernegans are a lot smaller, though they're still pretty large and are also multi-part compositions. The disparity of sizes presented an installation problem, because there are only a few walls at Sandy Carson big enough for Tunson's mural-sized pieces. William Biety, the gallery director, solved the problem in a bold, if tremendously risky, way: He mixed the two shows together, putting a Tunson here and a Jernegan there. It's outlandish to make two solos into one duet, but somehow Biety pulled it off. The Tunsons and Jernegans look fabulous together, with each artist retaining his individual autonomy.
It's possible -- in fact I instinctively did it myself -- to view the tandem show as two individual exhibits by first looking at the large Tunsons and then going back around to take in the more subtly appealing Jernegans.
The influence of first-generation pop art has long been present in Tunson's work, and his signature style features photo-based representational imagery that often references the African-American experience. Among all the pop artists, Robert Rauschenberg, as Biety points out, is clearly the main source of inspiration for Tunson, and not only in these paintings. In a similar approach to Rauschenberg's, Tunson places images on top of one another. Another pop device Tunson employs is repetition. In some pieces, he uses dot patterns, and in others, rows of horizontal lines arranged in rectilinear shapes.
Though the paintings in Rudiments are abstract, there's clearly some kind of representational imagery underneath it all. The heroic "Untitled #111," hanging just beyond the reception area, has an almost photographic quality -- though it's impossible to tell what the subjects of the source photos were. People and things on which the likenesses are based are obscured by others that Tunson has stacked up on top of them. He also cuts up the images and reassembles them, thus rendering what would be recognizable unrecognizable. The images, as submerged as they are, do connect these abstracts to Tunson's more straightforwardly representational paintings. Over the decades, he's swung between abstraction and representation, often doing both simultaneously.
Taking over the north wall at the front of the gallery is "Untitled #110," which is ten feet high and fourteen feet wide. The painting is made up of four separate panels arranged in a grid, and it combines a lot of expressionism with a little representation. I can make out grotesque heads on either side and a fetus placed in the middle, though they may simply be organic shapes.
Sometimes Tunson is very didactic and succinct in conveying messages in his work, as in his famous series on black gang kids that's part of the show in Colorado Springs. In those paintings, which incorporate photocopy transfer, Tunson visually compares the youngsters to canaries in coal mines. To him, they are an early-warning system for society, the way the hapless canaries were for miners, warning them of impending asphyxiation by simply dropping dead. At other times, Tunson's meanings are ambiguous, as in the abstracts that make up Rudiments.
Now it's time to go through the show again and take in the other solo, Lines of Position, made up of ceramic-and-steel wall sculptures by Jeremy Jernegan. These planar constructivist pieces are extremely restrained and therefore need to be examined carefully in order to be fully appreciated. In every perceivable way -- save the fact that both artists' works hang on the walls -- the Jernegans are completely different from the Tunsons.
Jernegan teaches ceramics at Tulane University in what is officially known as the Newcomb Art Department. For ceramic enthusiasts and historians, the name Newcomb really rings the chimes. Newcomb College, formerly a women-only institution, operated an art pottery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing some of the finest art-nouveau ceramics in the United States. Today, pieces made there are displayed in museums around the world.
So Jernegan is the heir to quite a heady tradition, and with the pieces at Sandy Carson, he's clearly holding up his end of it. And like the old Newcomb vases, his work reflects the most advanced artistic currents of its time.
The sculptures are basically constructivist. Jernegan makes a series of steel frames in geometric shapes, then places images -- typically, ocean waves -- in the frames. He then lines them up horizontally in both symmetrical and asymmetrical compositions, mounting most of them so they are canted out from the wall in elaborate arrangements.
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