So recently has the Boulder Art Center been renamed the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art--it was only last spring--that the new metro phone books still list it by its former moniker. That's a shame, because we should try to forget about the BAC as soon as possible.
For much of its history, the BAC was host to exhibits that appealed mostly to Boulder's brown-rice-and-rope-sandal crowd (the legacy of which is an annual show that still features some of the most conservative and amateurish artists working in the city). Fortunately, the recent name change isn't just an empty attempt to bolster the credibility of the place. Instead, it's a reflection of real changes that have taken place since the director's job was awarded to Cydney Payton four years ago.
Formerly a well-known Denver art dealer, Payton has brought a true vision to BMoCA. It's a fresh perspective seen not just in soon-to-be-unveiled plans for a renovation but also in the strength of the exhibits with which she has filled up the calendar. Just since it became BMoCA, the museum has hosted a spectacular display of Lawrence Argent sculptures, a fine solo show by Phil Bender (surely a warmup for his forthcoming exhibit at the Denver Art Museum's Close Range Gallery) and a zany but compelling group show of contemporary paintings. Right now BMoCA is hosting two of the strongest single-artist shows around. On the first floor, it's Hearts and Minds, a survey of a decade's worth of work by Manitou Springs artist Floyd Tunson; upstairs, Low Rent Surrealism features recent paintings by Denver's Matt O'Neill.
The entire ground level of the BMoCA has been given over to Tunson, a necessary concession owing to the enormous size of many of the pieces included--especially those from the namesake "Hearts and Minds" series. Those works reflect various stylistic approaches; though a response to pop art is at the center of many of them, the influence of abstract expressionism, regionalism and neo-expressionism also can be observed. Only a couple of things unify Tunson's work: his tremendous skill at juggling bold colors and unlikely color combinations, and the thematic link of the struggle against racism.
A spectacular mixed-media wall relief from the "Hearts and Minds" series drives that last point home by combining photocopied portraits of young African-American men with images of money, flies, body parts, guns and targets. Tunson assembles found images with found and ready-made objects and holds them all together with an expressive top layer of graphite and paint. The result is more sculpture than painting, though Tunson uses three-dimensional elements--such as a real window frame--for painterly, not sculptural, effect.
Tunson apparently conceives of the "Hearts and Minds" series as a single work with moveable parts. For example, a triptych from 1995 features a wood-constructed central panel hung with paddles in the form of hands and a skull; it's bracketed by a pair of photorealist enlargements of handguns. In his show at Robischon Gallery last summer, Tunson put the central panel above a fragment of the wall relief; one of the gun paintings was displayed alone.
But this in-depth exhibit is more than the "Hearts and Minds" pieces (or is that piece?). There are two works from last year's "Canary Metaphor" series, both of which were also seen at the Robischon show. In them, photocopied portraits of young African-American men have been paired with brightly colored images of canaries. The symbolic comparison is readily apparent: The canary is the classic early-warning system for underground miners wary of poisonous gas. Tunson suggests that the young men of his "Canary Metaphor" series are giving American society the same kind of warning.
Tunson's "Delta" series conveys an entirely different mood. Rather than the anger and anguish of "Hearts and Minds," the artist summons a wistful nostalgia when portraying poor, elderly blacks who live along the Mississippi River delta. These sculptural wall reliefs employ found materials such as salvaged windows and window screens as frames for lighted photo boxes; those boxes in turn reveal picturesque scenes of everyday life in the rural South. Even Tunson's color schemes are old-timey: In the 1995 "Delta III," a 1930s Coca-Cola sign establishes the dominant red-white-and-green scheme, while in 1987's mural-sized diptych "Fourth of July," the red stripes of many real flags are set against white and creamy yellow--with just a touch of fluorescent green here and there.
It's a good thing that a staircase with a landing separates Tunson's show from O'Neill's. Because while Tunson creates gigantic works using riotous combinations of loud colors, O'Neill prefers intimately scaled easel paintings conceived in virtual monochromes--efforts that nonetheless have their own strong appeal.
Some, but not all, of these O'Neill paintings were displayed last spring in a group show at the lamentably now-defunct Carol Siple Gallery (since replaced by a successor). And they demonstrate O'Neill's great technical skill with oil paint. His rendering is crisp, with hard edges between forms. His surfaces are tightly done and seamless. The technique owes a debt to the historical paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as does the luminosity, or interior light, that these oils on canvas seem to give off. The latter effect is the product of O'Neill's expert color mixing, itself a reference to traditional painting.
Many of O'Neill's paintings at first appear to be black and white; only after careful inspection does the viewer notice the subtle greens, golds and lavenders he uses to make up his grays. That's the hidden touch that gives these pseudo monochromes their inner glow.
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The show's title refers to O'Neill's subject matter, which is a surrealistic undertaking to be sure. Several of the paintings, for instance, are made to look like high school yearbook photos, from which they were inspired. The twist? The young people in the pictures have been disfigured a la the 1930s surrealism of Rene Magritte and Salvador Dal. In the 1995 oil on canvas "Portrait of Boy With Dal Crutches," a thug with a missing front tooth has had one side of his face pulled open--and then propped up by sticks that rest on the shoulder of his Ohio State University T-shirt.
"Four Musicians," the only really large painting from O'Neill, also plays off an unlikely combination of commercial photography and surrealism. An early 1960s publicity shot of the Beatles provides the model for this painting, which again uses "Dal crutches" to hold up flayed faces. The details of the faces also have been rearranged--John Lennon's got his mouth on his forehead and Ringo's right eye slides down his shirtfront.
Perhaps the best selections in this very strong group of experimental works are the paintings that consciously respond to Pablo Picasso's unique abstract approach to surrealism--a tack far different from the representational variant championed by Dal and Magritte. The colors O'Neill uses in two 1995 oil paintings--"Woman's Head (Picasso Basket)" and "Seated Woman (Beach Figure)"--are still very subtle and quiet. But unlike the other pieces in the show, they don't convey a false black-and-white effect. Instead, they incorporate a range of tints from pale blue to subtle gold along with a deep, luxuriously shiny black. These paintings are wonderful, but like the yearbook Dals, they doubtless mark only one more transition for this idiosyncratic--and highly interesting--painter.
Tunson and O'Neill would appear to be an unlikely pairing since each follows a very different road to artistic expression. But both artists are confronting the same issue--setting up a tension between pop culture and high culture. Once we realize that, Payton's association of these disparate talents seems positively inspired.