Odd as it may seem, Denver hasn't always been the art-making hub of Colorado. From the nineteenth century up to the 1970s, Colorado Springs was the home of our most important contemporary art scene. And it was there that a loosely affiliated group formed the state's first true artist cooperatives--years before the first crudely painted "howling dog" was put on display at Spark and then Pirate.
The artists who came together to create Wonka Plumbing and Heating and its successor, Relic Press, in the 1970s were especially interested in reinterpreting the recent lessons of pop art, as well as the more remote ones of Dada. They embraced commercial-art media that were only beginning to emerge as appropriate for fine artists to use, methods like photo-emulsion silkscreening, photocopying and rubber stamping. And they infused their work with ideological content, sometimes taking away market value by mailing their pieces out as postcards. Many of them have continued to create powerful art in these same ways, in spite of the general trend away from pop and Dada--and from modernism itself (those howling dogs again). One of the foremost among these artists is Floyd Tunson, currently the subject of an elegant exhibit brimming with political content at the Robischon Gallery.
Over the years, Tunson has embraced different styles as his messages and artistic aims have evolved. Though local viewers may be more familiar with his abstract paintings, which were shown last fall at the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery, the body of work at Robischon is dominated by mixed-media pieces inspired by pop art.
The works on view reveal obvious stylistic influences from Tunson's "heroes from art school--Warhol, Rauschenberg and Johns" and from the man Tunson calls "Big Daddy Xerox"--John Haeseler, another of those vanguard artists from the southern-Colorado art scene of twenty years ago.
Tunson titled his Robischon exhibit Heads: Endangered Species, a reference to the status of the young and poor African-American male. These pieces are emphatically not about the black middle class, "which is doing very well," says Tunson. But the financially successful artist and art teacher includes his own portrait among the "voiceless" others, because, he says, "I grew up that way," right here in Denver.
The show's centerpiece is a masterful mixed-media wall relief called "Hearts and Minds" that combines elements of drawing, printmaking, painting, advertising art and sculpture to make Tunson's central point about the arduousness of the experience of black male youth. Photocopies of body parts are laid out in the shape of a crucifix, while strong vertical components--one a column of enlargements of $50 bills, the other a column of portraits of young African-American men--are kept from the viewer by clear plastic tubes used as prison bars. That the barriers are clear suggests how insidious they are: Look, but don't touch.
That same sense of haplessness is reflected in a pair of printed targets occupying the center of "Hearts and Minds." One of the targets is on the backside of a round, open hatch door, the other is behind it. So the game is rigged against the young men--they can't win. Hanging off the piece are plywood paddles, each stenciled with the word "lost," to which Tunson has attached paper cut in the form of hands and a skull.
A main feature of Tunson's pictorial vocabulary is image repetition, represented in "Hearts and Minds" by the guns and flies he scatters all over the piece. Repetition, pseudo-repetition and mirror imaging are also seen in four large square works from the "Canary Metaphor" series that have been hung here together in a grid. Each piece has a four-part central image laid on a knotty plywood board that has been partly wrapped with canvas. By including the canvas as a ground but using hand-colored, photographically generated images (some of which suggest repetition but on closer inspection prove to be only similar, not identical), Tunson makes a witty comment on the nature of painting itself.
Like "Hearts and Minds," the "Canary Metaphor" series is loaded with symbolism, juxtaposing brilliantly colored birds with images of young black men. Canaries are bred by underground miners as an early warning system for deadly gases, Tunson notes, and are also bred for their song. "We say `Sing like a canary,' and `They are caged.' There are so many metaphors." Tunson adds that he chose the canary as a symbol not only for the many narrative possibilities, but also because of the visual "contrast between the black male and the yellow bird."
Other colors laid out in geometric fields in the "Canary Metaphor" series include red and blue, which according to Tunson are only coincidentally the "colors" of two rival street gangs. But the young black men may remind some viewers of youthful gangsters anyway, despite the fact that Tunson's handsome models have an innocence and vulnerability not unlike the canaries themselves. That perception would be an unplanned consequence of the very societal forces on which Tunson has focused his artful scrutiny.
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Tunson's sophisticated imagery is sometimes combined with a cruel wit. That's the case with several oversized matchbooks (some made of illustration board, one of corrugated cardboard and one an actual old-fashioned wooden matchbox) that are all titled "Raw Deal." Here a halftone photocopy of a lynched black man has been hand-colored and turned into the incendiary logo for the imaginary "Raw Deal" brand of matches.
Another piece that is wryly humorous, if only through its title, is "Delta Queen II," a wall-mounted installation that blends photocopied figures, found objects and Technicolor photographs in back-lighted boxes. The title, which conjures up the paddle-wheel riverboats of the Old South, actually refers to an elderly African-American woman. In lighted photographs and in a large stand-up cutout that surmounts the piece, we see her at her modest home in the rural South. Her relationship to the young men we see throughout the rest of the show is in the way she represents maternal care and guidance. "Almost every young male has a grandmother," says Tunson--a person who often represents "his only stability."
In addition to these mixed-media constructions, the Robischon show includes a number of acrylic paintings of young black men that Tunson calls his "Endangered" series. In most of these, Tunson uses either black paint over a white ground or white over black--opposite approaches that produce very similar results. Tunson uses large and graphic brushstrokes to create an effect not unlike the photo-based work seen elsewhere in the show; in fact, the resulting paintings resemble halftones.
Lately, it seems, many artists have political axes to grind. But as most of them have demonstrated, it's hard enough to make successful art, let alone do it while saying something. Tunson is able to accomplish this difficult task when so many other artists fail because he understands how it's done. First there needs to be visual interest--only then can the message get through.