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Far and Wide

"Nancy Diptych," by Joe Brainard, oil on canvas.

Last fall, a national search was conducted to find a replacement for Cydney Payton, the respected former director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art who has taken over at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. In January, BMoCA's board of trustees announced its selection, Ken Bloom. It's taken a few months for him to make the move, but he is now in the process of establishing his administrative regime in Boulder.

Bloom comes to BMoCA as both a practicing artist of thirty years -- he has an MFA in photography from New York University -- and an art administrator with twenty years' experience. For the past four years, he was the director of Landmark Arts, the art center of Texas Tech in Lubbock. Before that, he worked at a series of exhibition venues in Charlotte, North Carolina, including the Light Factory Visual Arts Center and the Spirit Square Center for the Arts.

Just settling into his new job, Bloom is beginning the transition from the Payton era. "We're doing a lot of housecleaning and reorganization," he says. "I'm looking at making some fundamental changes, including a board reorganization, the development of a renewed strategic plan, virtually rewriting the mission statement, evaluating the physical plant. I'm looking at everything right now."

As for programming, Bloom says, "The shows during the next year or so will be consistent with the history of the institution." And, despite his wholesale approach to administrative restructuring, Bloom says that as a curator he will approach things in the same way Payton did. "People should not expect a change in aesthetic vision, and BMoCA will continue to set the standard for visual arts in the community."

Bloom is also interested in getting public input: "I am open to suggestions, the 'Wouldn't it be great?' kind of thing. This is a place where other voices will be heard, and I'm particularly interested in people with special expertise." With that in mind, Bloom plans to work with guest curators. "I could program this place for the next five years out of my file cabinet, but I want to keep my finger on the pulse of the art world and benefit from the experience of others."

However, Payton-planned shows will continue throughout the summer, so Bloom's changes won't be apparent until this fall, when the first of his exhibits will be unveiled. Actually, Payton left a year's worth of planned shows, but Bloom has canceled the end of the season and pulled out of the traveling Visualizing the Blues, a photography show that includes pictures of the biggest names in the Blues by the biggest names in photography.

For now, Payton's program continues with the traveling Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, installed in the West Gallery, and Open Workyards, devoted to Boulder artist Jim Johnson, in the East Gallery.

The Brainard show was sponsored by the Berkeley Art Museum in California and organized by the museum's senior curator, Constance Lewallen.

Born in Arkansas in 1942 and raised in Oklahoma, Brainard moved to New York City in 1961 and soon found himself deeply involved with a vanguard literary and artistic circle. Among his influential new friends was poet, critic and theorist Frank O'Hara. In addition to being a visual artist, Brainard was a poet, and his art often has a literary component. He frequently illustrated books and designed book covers, including some for poet Kenward Elmslie, who now lives in Boulder. According to Payton, Elmslie was instrumental in bringing the Brainard show to Boulder.

In the 1960s, Brainard exhibited his work in important venues in New York and Chicago, but he was appreciated only by a small group of enthusiasts. By the time of his death in 1994 from AIDS-related pneumonia, he was essentially unknown or, at the very best, forgotten. That began to change, though, in 1997, when New York's prestigious Tibor de Nagy Gallery mounted a survey of Brainard's work, which revived interest in him.

And there's quite a bit to pique a viewer's interest. In fact, there's hardly a dull moment in the dense and way-too-crowded exhibit at BMoCA.

Brainard's idiosyncratic work is difficult to categorize stylistically. Clearly, pop art represented a lifelong interest for him, but other styles affected his work, including abstract expressionism, funk, minimalism and pattern painting. He was also broadly interested in the comics, advertising, homoerotic pornography and -- of all things -- flowers.

The oldest pieces in the show are among the most obviously pop, which makes sense, because Brainard first came to New York when pop art was the cutting-edge movement being seen in all the right places. Two 1962 works hung just inside the entrance to the West Gallery make the point nicely. "American Flag" is a collage of a flat abstraction of the flag in yellow and taupe, subtly covered with cursive writing in blue ballpoint pen. It's stunning, and although it owes an obvious debt to the earlier flag paintings by pop pioneer Jasper Johns, it's thoroughly different. The other piece, "7-UP," is the unforgettable and beautiful rendition of the famous logo in an icy powder blue with black, white and red. Although "7-UP" was inspired by pop master Andy Warhol, Brainard retains his artistic authorship, because the logo looks nothing like a Warhol.

 

On the other side of the entrance is "The Sky Book," from 1965, consisting of twenty mixed-media collages. Using meticulously altered magazine illustrations, including images of flowers and male pinups, Brainard lays out a vague narrative. The twenty leaves have been arranged in a grid, five high and four wide. The grid, and the simple handling of some of the collages, connect this piece and a related one hung nearby to minimalism. You could actually argue that Brainard was delving into post-minimalism -- which would make him way ahead of the curve, because at the same time, minimalism itself was fairly new.

On the other side of the room is a group of Brainard's flower pictures that, like "7-UP," are also conceptually related to Warhol. In "Untitled (Garden)," a collage from 1969, Brainard has created an all-over abstraction using cut-out printed reproductions of flowers. Curator Lewallen points out in an essay accompanying the show that in addition to the obvious connection to pop art, works of this sort link Brainard to Pollock and also "presage pattern painting."

The pieces Brainard is most remembered for, though are in his Nancy series, which he began in the 1970s. In these, he's taken Nancy, the wholesome cartoon character who has been a standard feature of the comics since the 1950s, and subjected her to a variety of indignities. In "If Nancy Was an Ashtray," Brainard drew a conventionally detailed Nancy in a dead-on impersonation of Nancy's creator, Ernie Bushmiller, and stuck a cigarette butt in her mouth. The drawing has been done in black and red on white. In "If Nancy Had an Afro," Brainard has blown up Nancy's characteristic hairdo to enormous proportions. Both these ink-on-paper drawings are from 1972.

Brainard also created Nancy-inspired works done in the style of fellow fine artists, including Jim Dine and Willem de Kooning. The apotheosis of the series is "Nancy Diptych," an oil on canvas from 1974. In this riveting painting, Nancy is seen in the left panel in a pose that shows her with her elbow propped on the table. In style, Brainard directly apes Bushmiller in this panel. But in the companion panel, the same scene pictured in mirror-image is wildly expressive in style. A conventionally rendered Nancy has been painted out, and the background is covered in graffiti including the message "N. Loves S.," a reference to Nancy's longtime companion, Sluggo.

Brainard's work also includes traditionally painted representational pieces, including several of dogs and some still-life scenes. One piece that combines this approach with Brainard's interest in repetition is "Cinzano," an oil on canvas from 1974. Brainard assembled sixteen individual paintings of Cinzano ashtrays filled with ashes and cigarette butts and arranged them in four rows of four. The repeated Cinzano logo, in red, white and blue, is seen against earth-toned backgrounds, predominately tan or beige.

Open Workyards, in the East Gallery of BMoCA, is the perfect companion to the Brainard exhibit. It was organized by Payton, who returned to Boulder a few months ago to work on it.

Artist Jim Johnson came to Boulder in 1970 after getting his MFA from Washington State University and joined the painting and drawing faculty of the fine-arts department at CU, where he still works. His conceptually linked pieces are in many private and public collections, including those of New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Denver Art Museum.

Like Brainard, Johnson's been looking at pop art and creating what might be called post-pop art as a response. In "Magic Mirror," an oil on canvas from 1974-75, he deconstructs pop art, reducing it to near minimalism, and as a twist, adds an ironic narrative. The word "you" has been painted backward, and thus the perspective of the painting is directed away from the viewer. The letters are formed from the simplest of typefaces and have been arranged in a line across the middle of the small panel. The colors are hypnotic, with the deep red letters seen against a burnt-yellow-orange ground.

Letters, and more significantly, words, play a central role in most of Johnson's works. One piece, "A Thousand Words," from 1991, is made up of 1,000 laser prints of words in white on a black field. It is mounted on the gallery wall. The individual laser prints look like bricks, another motif in several of the Johnsons at BMoCA. "The Big IF," a 1990 acrylic-on-canvas sculpture of the word 'if' creates the opposite effect; the word looks as if it were made of little black bricks joined with white mortar.

 

In some cases, words are merely suggested, as in the diptych, "Talent," a 1991 acrylic on canvas. On one side is a cartoon version of a gift-wrapped box on a chartreuse field, on the other, in black against a loud reddish pink, is a line of punctuation and other marks -- the kind used to signify obscenities in the comics. Though there is no word that appears anywhere on "Talent," Johnson begs the viewer to fill one in.

The pairing of Brainard and Johnson was brilliant, and credit, of course, is due to Payton. The shows, one highlighting a New York artist, the other a hometown hero, perfectly reveal her signature touch: displaying local artists side by side with national ones. Here's hoping that Bloom will be equally inspired.


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