A common perception within Denver's alternative scene is that everyone has an equal right to participate--and that that's what "open" or "outsider" shows are all about. I've even heard it said during a panel discussion linked to an Alternative Arts Alliance event that all art is valid--which, if it were true, would be hard cheese for the likes of yours truly.
This goody-goody egalitarianism has left the alternative circuit wide open to many for whom it is the last refuge. Typically, these players fall into two common types: the hip Sunday painter, usually a woman; and that well-known fixture, the combination art dabbler and substance abuser, usually a man. And after seeing a number of shows by these self-important actors (who at times seem to outnumber the real artists on the scene), viewers can hardly be blamed for harboring the misconception that there is an identifiable creature known simply as an "alternative artist." (Come to think of it, many of these poseurs are alternatives to artists.)
Every once in a while, however, there's a show at one of Denver's alternative spaces that's so good and so solid, it eloquently makes the point that it's not the artists, but rather the galleries themselves, that are actually the alternatives.
Sounding, the current show at Pirate, is just such an event. The exhibit comprises a cogent and seamless collection of charcoal drawings by Denver artist William Stockman. It might seem more appropriate to find Stockman's masterful drawings on display at the Denver Art Museum or one of the city's better commercial venues, rather than at this storefront co-op on the corner of 37th and Navajo. In the past, Pirate has as often been the site of weekend keggers as it has been a place to find art shows as credible as this one (though, in fairness, things have improved considerably in the past year).
Before he installed the Sounding drawings, Stockman went to a great deal of trouble to make Pirate's main gallery presentable--which was no small accomplishment. He repainted the entire place a dazzling white--essentially the color of the drawing paper he uses. He put a fresh coat of shiny finish on the worn wooden floors. And he even moved aside the too-tall table that typically sits along the front wall. (The table was a veritable Pirate landmark; before Stockman cleaned it off, it was most often seen covered with dirty plastic cups filled part-way with stale beer, constituting one of the longest running ad-hoc installations around.) As a result of all these preparations, Stockman was able to provide his drawings with an appropriately neutral environment and in the process transform the front room at Pirate--temporarily at least--into one of the city's most elegant art spaces.
This isn't the first time Stockman has pulled off this kind of coup--and the last time was also at Pirate. It was exactly a year ago this month, in fact, that Stockman broke out of the pack with an incredible premiere solo show of idiosyncratic paintings that relied on humor and unexpected displacements in otherwise very traditional scenes. Those paintings were unique and well done, leading Stockman to immediately become one of 1995's only new art stars. And on top of that, word spread that one of the paintings in the show had been purchased by the DAM for its Modern and Contemporary collection. It would be hard to imagine a more auspicious local debut.
Stockman's new Sounding drawings--mammoth works created on sheets of Lennox rag paper and sensitively framed by the artist in heavy black shadow boxes--are only tangentially related to last year's paintings. There is a repeated theme in both series--the figure in the landscape--but Stockman says the drawings lack the "deliberation" of the paintings and in that way are plainly distinguishable. Also, whereas the paintings are carefully conceived, Stockman says the drawings seem "to spring out of my hand automatically, directly from my psyche."
The mural-sized drawings at Pirate have much more in common with a series of small, quirky drawings Stockman presented last spring at the Grant Gallery. Both groups often feature nude figures involved in some enigmatic activity; above them, stars, scribbles or other figures seem to float. Further similarities include Stockman's handling of drawn lines, smudges and smears, which he employs in a variety of approaches, including short staccato strokes and strong, wide swaths.
The relationship of the large drawings to the earlier small ones is not casual; in fact, similar preliminary sketches (which have never been exhibited) specifically anticipate each of the massive drawings at Pirate. And the remarkable thing about the Sounding drawings is how much changing their size has affected the way they look. Call it the difference between "tiny" and "vast"--and the interaction of the viewer is affected profoundly. With the small drawings displayed at Grant, careful study of the minuscule details was required, but with the six-by-seven-foot Sounding pieces, viewers can practically walk right up and into the drawings.
Despite the monumental scale, however, Stockman has been able to preserve in the large drawings the freshness and spontaneity of their smaller cousins. The confidence of his line and obvious speed of his unerring draftsmanship is completely maintained in the translation from the quick study-sketches shown at Grant to the more carefully finished presentations of the Sounding group. And let's not forget how out of the ordinary it is for an artist to create preliminary drawings for another drawing (rather than for a painting), as Stockman has done here.
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Stockman says there is "something insignificant about drawings." So to create significant ones is, for him, to push the margins of the medium. Large presentation drawings like the Sounding series are not entirely unknown, but they're rarely seen. And Stockman furthers the sense of adventure by setting up tensions in his drawings--rendering, for instance, very untraditional subjects in a neo-traditional style. In the breathtaking "Dig," this contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar is especially apparent; the influence of the School of Paris can be seen in the beautiful arcing lines that define a set of shoulders--not those of an odalisque reclining on a chaise as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres would have done, but of a Neanderthal woman who has been interrupted while she digs a hole under a starry sky. Paris is also on our minds when we see a languorous male nude pointing at a shooting star with a human face in the spectacular "Untitled."
The interest in historicism manifested by Stockman's neo-traditionalism is not only not modern; it is pointedly anti-modern. And it comes in spite of the fact that the expressive gestures Stockman uses to construct his drawings are themselves thoroughly modern--as is his idea that images of digging Neanderthals could "spring" from a stick of charcoal.
The depiction of an interrupted activity, such as the female Neanderthal's digging, is seen in several other drawings in the series, notably "Crippled Bird," where a cloud drops rain on the grounded, injured creature. But the narrative meanings that seem to apply in the Sounding drawings are not clear and are obviously about more than simply communicating an interrupted moment or conveying a sense of personal frustration. There are, after all, more ambiguous elements in Stockman's drawings, in particular a number of displaced body parts. What do they mean? In another piece called "Untitled," the bottom half of a nude woman appears to be standing in a swamp with eyes buzzing around her ankles in lieu of the more predictable mosquitoes. The eyes function in the composition as a random and arbitrary pattern, much as the stars in "Dig" or the rain in "Crippled Bird." Stockman says that these choices "just appear and are off the cuff."
Stockman is emblematic of a whole group of mostly younger artists who, in the past year especially, have striven to revitalize the long-slumbering Pirate. If Sounding is any indication, they've done it--or at least Stockman has. Though it is only January, it seems safe to say that few local exhibits this year are likely to equal this high-quality solo show. But hurry. It closes this weekend.