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"A Picture From Life's Other Side," by John Hull, acrylic on canvas.

Many art forms, such as literature and drama, have long used narrative to convey their stories, but the visual arts, for the most part, don't have to: Paintings and sculptures only need to look good -- or at least be interesting.

It's easy to understand the appeal of the purely visual over the visual narrative, both for artists and for viewers: There's no ideological content to interfere with the visual experience. Artists have embraced non-narrative styles such as abstraction throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but when postmodernism became established two decades ago, it prompted an increased interest in narrative art. Initially it was narrative conceptual art, but eventually postmodernism also brought about the big return of realism in painting and sculpture, which is where we are now.

John Hull is among the finest contemporary realists in the region and is nationally recognized for his compelling narrative paintings. He's part of that generation of artists who came of age during the turn from modern to postmodern. As early as the 1980s, he established himself in the New York gallery scene. I didn't know his work then, but I've been following his career since he moved here from the East Coast in the mid-1990s to chair the art department at the University of Colorado at Denver. He's no longer chair, but he still teaches painting and drawing there.

Currently, Hull is the subject of a marvelous solo show, Pictures From Sonny's Place, at Denver's + Gallery. As usual, he has done a cycle of paintings that, taken together, could be called a painted novel. Looking at them in this way, it's not surprising to find out that Hull has also worked as a professional writer.

How Hull came up with the story behind the paintings in Pictures From Sonny's Place illustrates how he constructs his overall narratives. He uses actual locations, people and events in the news and in movies to come up with the stories. But what happens with the places, people and events is completely fictional.

The spark of inspiration for these paintings was a junkyard, "Sonny's Place," near Sheridan, Wyoming, that Hull had come across while visiting the nearby Ucross Foundation, where he would later have a residency. However, since the story is fictional, some of them are based on locations in Colorado or New Mexico masquerading as the immediate area surrounding the Wyoming junkyard.

The main characters in the drama are also masquerading as something they are not: In the paintings, the people are drug dealers, but in reality, they are based on members of Hull's family and his friends, who, presumably, are not. The old man, Sonny, is based on Hull's memories of his deceased grandfather; the young man, Sonny's son, is modeled on an old friend of Hull's from his days in the U. S. Marine Corps; the kid is Hull's own son, Isaac. The name Isaac shows up in several of the paintings, especially on the license plates of the wrecked cars.

The junkyard and its inhabitants play out a drama about a drug war in the sticks. The narrative comes out of a report Hull read in The Pueblo Chieftain about the inadequacy of policing in the rural West -- in particular, the problems with the highly competitive methamphetamine trade. He combined this news item with his recollections of the 1950s B-movie Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum. In Hull's imagined reality, the junkyard is a center for the local drug trade, though we don't see any real evidence of this in the paintings except in the characters' dissipated appearance.

Although there are women depicted in several of the paintings, Sonny's Place reflects a world dominated by men. There are lots of cars and many guns, which, as I don't need to tell you, are two mainstays of the macho crowd. This is not unexpected from Hull, who is most comfortable when taking this kind of view.

The paintings have not been arranged chronologically in terms of when Hull painted them, but that's okay, because the story he's laid out can be told in several different ways and still come out the same at the end. Most simply reveal the everyday life of the junkyard, such as "Family Reserve," the first painting to the left of the gallery's entrance, in which the three key men -- Sonny, his son and his grandson -- are shown hanging out. The grandson is cocking a pistol while Sonny and his son look on from behind.

One of Hull's specialties is composition. In this painting, a dynamic diagonal running from the bottom right to the center left leads the viewer directly to the figures who occupy the middle. There's a similar thing going on in "A Picture From Life's Other Side," but this time the diagonal, created by the course of the road and the shadow of an upturned vehicle, directs the viewer to the left side, where the son is seen carrying a box spring on his back. His pose, with his arms outstretched, is reminiscent of Christ on the cross, which is not as outlandish as it sounds, considering that the son later suffers for the sins of his own world.

 

The specter of potential violence is everywhere, especially since there are so many guns. But a bad end is also suggested by many of the paintings in which there are no guns, like "A Picture From Life's Other Side." Hull is able to infuse his paintings with palpable tension, and the suspense is cranked up when a drug-dealing rival shows up in "Hope You Don't Mind." Without any information other than what's in this picture, viewers immediately grasp that one of the men represents a threat to the tight-knit world of Sonny's; I know I did. The man in question, it turns out, is a friend of the man shot to death by someone in Sonny's crowd. Hull lays out the tragic scene heroically in "Twilight." In "One Way," Sonny's son is also shown lying on the ground with a gunshot wound, though it's clear he's still alive and will rise again -- another Christ reference. Interestingly, the son is not the center of attention in this painting; he is overwhelmed by the setting, which includes an enormous road grader and a big white trailer.

The wreckage that fills almost every painting provides a great background for the action of the figures. Hull likens it to the wallpaper in certain Matisse paintings. The lively forms of the junked cars, like the patterns on Matisse's wallpapers, create a lot of imaginary space in the back while simultaneously providing tons of visual interest. But -- and here's the important part -- as busy and dense with detail as the junkyard setting is, it somehow recedes, allowing the figures in the foreground to stand out against it.

Compared to Hull's earlier work, these recent paintings strike me as being much brushier and more expressionistic. Up close, there are daubs, smears and blotches of color spreading across the surface of the canvas. As we step back, the scene comes into sharp focus. Hull uses photographic studies, as do most representational painters, but only in a very limited way; his typical studies are done as drawings and even paintings. In the newest piece in the group, "The Emperor of Wyoming," Hull has inserted one of these studies into the composition. The small painting is depicted as being still attached to Hull's collapsible easel, which is lying on its side.

Strangely, two of Hull's "Sonny's" paintings are marooned in the back of the gallery, hanging separate from the rest -- and from each other. Though the painting cycle does include too many pieces, considering the current size of the room (I'm not sure why the moveable wall wasn't simply pushed back a few feet), it seems like a mistake to have chosen "Cops" as one of those to be set off from the rest. "Cops" marks a climactic moment in the story -- the arrival of the police -- and it really belongs up front.

Beyond the Hulls, installed in the second space, is another show with the workmanlike title of Selections From New American Paintings #54. The title refers to a juried show that appears only in the pages of a publication called New American Paintings and on its website. Lynn M. Herbert, the senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, juried the show in issue #54. Herbert is a friend of Gilbert I. Barrera, who hails from Houston and who co-directs + Gallery with owner Ivar Zeile. Hull was among Herbert's selected artists, and so were the five painters in the other + show: Thuong Nguyen, Waddy Armstrong, David Leonard, Kate Petley and Kevin Lucero Less.

Each of the artists is represented by two paintings, with most of the work being pretty good, especially Nguyen's. However, the styles of the five really don't work well together, and as a result, +'s abbreviated version of New American Paintings never really jells as a coherent group show. When I was first told about this show a few months ago, I thought it was a great idea. Apparently, I was wrong.

Here's the funny part: Barrera and Zeile had the perfect potential companion to the Hull show hanging right above their heads. In the office area, adjacent to the second space, is a large Peter Illig painting behind the desks, and there are more of them in the storage area. Illig does noirish contemporary representational work of the neo-pop stripe. His approach has a lot of corollaries to Hull's, yet it is different enough that no one would confuse the two.

 

John Hull's Pictures From Sonny's Place is great, and by being great, it provides the up-and-coming + Gallery with just the kind of healthy start it needs now that the second half of the current season is just getting under way.


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