Jeff Starr: The Wrath of Grapes

The Museum of Contemporary Art unveils its first show devoted to a local artist.

When two different groups of people, one made up mostly of artists, the other comprising collectors and donors, began to separately brainstorm back in the 1990s about the creation of a new contemporary-art museum in Denver, one of the biggest motivating factors was the desire to showcase art made in Colorado. It wasn't that the institution would be solely dedicated to the region's artists, but it would give them a shot alongside national and international stars. Twelve years ago, the two camps merged and founded the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver.

Since then, the MCA has mostly kept to the letter of this law, if not its spirit. There have been major shows devoted to some of the best local artists, notably Decades/Remix, a group of exhibits presented last year in the old space in Sakura Square and other venues that surveyed the state's contemporary art from 1985 to the present. The multi-part exhibit put together by MCA director and curator Cydney Payton was one of the most interesting and important I've ever seen in Colorado. Payton selected more than a hundred artists, and though some may quibble with this choice or that, 75 of them would have made anyone's list. With the opening of the new David Adjaye-designed building, a book called "Decades/Remix" was released (available in the gift shop) that assembles images by all of the included artists, supplemented by biographic and stylistic information on each.

"Brokenborough," by Jeff Starr, oil on canvas.
"Brokenborough," by Jeff Starr, oil on canvas.
"Wymond," by Jeff Starr, ceramic on a steel base.
"Wymond," by Jeff Starr, ceramic on a steel base.

Details

Through May 25, Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.com.For a complete slide show of the exhibit, go to slideshow.westword.com.

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But when it was time to open that new building, not one of the seven debut exhibits, collectively titled Star Power, was given over to an artist from our community, and everybody noticed. It was a serious political error, but Payton has moved decisively to correct it by establishing an artist residency for home-state favorites. Each of the artists she selects will be given a solo. The plan is that there will always be an exhibit with a Colorado connection at the MCA. What a great idea.

The first of these, Jeff Starr: The Wrath of Grapes, is now in the Mary Caulkins and Karl Kister Project Gallery on the second floor. The title refers to a malapropism that Starr once overheard. The exhibit features recent paintings and ceramic sculptures by Starr, a well-known Denver artist, along with a fragment of his studio that is done as an installation.

I'm of two minds when it comes to studio facsimiles such as this. They are meant to give meaning to the idea of an artist-in-residence by referring to his or her everyday experience, and this pastiche does provide insight into Starr's creative process. For instance, there are photos of George Ohr pots and those by Beatrice Wood; two paintings by Starr's friend Matt O'Neill; a photo by Wes Kennedy; lots of books; and a tape player running a loop of old-time pop music from a radio show. But, as informative as it is, this jumble of furniture and objects prevents the Starr show from looking as good as it might have, which is why I wish the mélange wasn't eating up valuable gallery space.

Essentially self-taught, Starr broke onto the scene in the 1980s, a time when there was a lot of interest in contemporary art by Coloradans, much of it directed toward him. Born in New Jersey in 1956, Starr moved with his family to Littleton in 1973. Since childhood, he had wanted to be an artist, and there are selections of his juvenilia, including a group of scrapbooks filled with collages and drawings on the third floor, in The Idea Box. He briefly attended the University of Colorado at Denver, but only to take classes from the idiosyncratic representational painter John Fudge. This connection is interesting and provocative, and I've long wished someone would mount a show contrasting their work, because the teacher profoundly impacted the student.

Starr has often used different painting styles more or less simultaneously, but he's always representational, even when he renders abstract sculptures, such as the one in the studio installation, as his subjects. The paintings in the show illustrate this, even if all of them could be described as examples of conceptual realism. Stylistically, they fall into two basic categories: super-realistic, as in "The Actor (Lee Marvin)"; or fantasy-based, as in "Freedonia," a whimsical depiction of a storybook village. Given his interest in Hollywood, as revealed by the Marvin portrait, it might be assumed that the title "Freedonia" is a reference to the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, which is set in that imaginary place, but Starr says he was unaware of the association.

The paintings in the fantastical category are clearly the more significant of the two types, in that they indicate a new direction and new content for Starr. In "Freedonia," a cluster of ramshackle if picturesque houses caps the top of a steep outcropping. In the foreground, a car is seen rounding a bend, with a chic modernist house nearby. The colors, predominantly green and orange, are just right. And they are technically superb, as the paint has been perfectly applied and meticulously blended into the correct shade.

"Brokenborough," which has a brighter palette, is similar to "Freedonia," with structures covering a bizarre precipice. But Starr pushes the precarious narrative even further by having some elements sticking out of the side of the mountain, seemingly hanging by a thread.

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