William Stockman focuses on the figure at Ironton Studios

Over the last quarter-century, old-fashioned representational imagery has supplanted abstraction, which had dominated most of the cutting-edge art of the twentieth century and become the preeminent expression in the fine arts internationally. It's not that abstraction is passé; it's just that more and more artists have embraced the figure to tell their stories.

A good example of this change in sensibility is Denver Art Museum curator Christoph Heinrich's reinstallation of the permanent collection of the Modern and Contemporary Department ("New Look," August 28). He completely reconceived what's on view by bringing out pieces that are mostly about conceptual realism, a combination of hotter-than-hot conceptualism and tried-and-true realism. Heinrich, like mega-collectors and museum donors Vicki and Kent Logan, who are exerting a big influence at the DAM and elsewhere in the area, is a major proponent of this often easy-to-understand narrative and philosophical mode of aesthetics.

One encouraging thing about the re-install, called Focus: the Figure, is that Heinrich included works by a handful of Colorado artists, including a multi-part mural by Tony Ortega, a self-portrait by Bill Amundson and a metaphorical neo-neo-classical painting by Wes Hempel. When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Heinrich said he didn't pointedly include Colorado artists; it just happened because he liked these particular pieces. He feels that giving preference to local artists would be the wrong way to go, and on this point I disagree with him completely.

"Deluge," by William Stockman, charcoal on paper.
"Deluge," by William Stockman, charcoal on paper.

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Through September 20, Ironton Studios and Gallery, 3636 Chestnut Place, 303-297-8626, www.irontonstudios.com.

First, there's absolutely nothing wrong with affirmative action. Riffing on the belief that the DAM does too little for Colorado art, well-known benefactress Nancy Tieken, who used to live here but is now in Boston, once said to me that if our state's artists aren't shown at the DAM, in what museum should they expect to have their work exhibited? Second, Heinrich does understand hometown pride when it comes to his own, as he will demonstrate with a Daniel Richter blockbuster next month. Richter, like Heinrich, hails from Hamburg, Germany. It reminds me of Seth Goldenberg and Liz Newton putting together the underwhelming Dialog:City during the Democratic National Convention and then devoting a big portion to artists from Providence, Rhode Island, the pair's previous place of residence. Unlike Heinrich, however, Goldenberg and Newton didn't include any artists from Denver in their $1 million-plus extravaganza.

All of this is a setup for Internal Combustion, a handsome exhibit at Ironton Studios and Gallery made up of monumental drawings by Denver's own William Stockman. This show, though more modest in scale and scope, is every bit as compelling as Focus: the Figure — and about ten times more interesting than Dialog:City. In fact, as I was taking in the Stockman feature, it occurred to me that it looked like a lost gallery from the DAM. Had it been there, it would have been one of the best parts of the lot.

Though Stockman was among the best known contemporary artists in town a decade ago, he split for a few years and essentially gave up making art in lieu of making a living. Even after he got back in 2002, he found it hard to make art for about five years. Then, in 2006, he started working on his drawings and paintings again, and has seemingly not stopped for even a minute since. Last winter he unveiled new paintings and drawings in a powerful exhibit titled Nothing Is Hiding at the Singer Gallery ("Back Again," December 13, 2007), which quickly re-established his prime place in the city's art hierarchy. The work reflected his classic style: elegantly conceived figural compositions with underlying enigmatic narratives.

Internal Combustion represents a continuation of these ideas. But instead of having Stockman's paintings take over, the Ironton show is made up entirely of gigantic drawings of tremendous power and grace, all of which were done in the last six months.

Internal Combustion starts off with a big bang of a piece, a roundel called "Twin" that depicts a figure with his or her shadow behind and to the right. There's a frenetic black scribble on the figure's chest, which suggests a dark heart, or at least a sense of turmoil. Stockman has told me repeatedly that he has no specific narrative in mind when he conceives his pieces, but he does concern himself with the big issues, like life and death, love and loss, and even peace and war, at least in an internal, psychological sense.

Stockman's process is compelling. He draws every day, thus generating hundreds of works every month, and his inspiration comes from what he sees around him and from photos he encounters in the print media and on the Internet. Stockman also takes digital photos of things that strike his fancy and downloads them onto his computer, touching them up using an electric eraser. These become something like preparatory images for his finished works. Initially drawn in sketch books, Stockman's completed drawings depart drastically from the details of these preparatory pieces, as he uses his instincts to guide the lines, employing automatism so that he makes marks almost unconsciously.

To do the gigantic drawings at Ironton, he took the small originals and put them in an opaque projector, with the image aimed at a large sheet of blank paper. He carried out the subject matter in charcoal, and then, employing an air compressor, smeared and altered his lines. The results are tremendously accomplished.

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