In Denver, like everywhere else, there are two highly distinct and opposing camps when it comes to the fine arts. There are the artists associated with a number of contemporary movements, and there are those who embrace more traditional styles. The rivalry between the two is anything but friendly: Traditionalists sneer at the presumed lack of skill in the work of vanguard artists, while the proponents of contemporary art look down their noses at the supposed emptiness of the traditional artists. And to some extent, each has a point.
The current exhibit at the Carol Siple Gallery, Modern Realism--Five Views, organized by guest curator Joshua Hassel, takes on the nearly impossible task of bringing representatives of both groups together in the same room. Given the antipathy of the rivals, it's hardly surprising to find the resulting show disjointed and difficult--and maybe that's as it should be.
The five views of the show's title refer to the visions of five painters, all of whom create identifiable subject matter in the realist tradition, using easel-painted landscapes, human figures, still lifes and portraits. Two of them, Daniel Sprick and Jeff Uffelman, are more or less traditionalists, whereas the other three--William Stockman, Jeff Starr and Matt O'Neill--are linked to the contemporary scene.
Among the five, only Uffelman, a nationally known artist from Santa Fe, is an out-of-stater. The other four are well-respected locally, with works from each included in the (im)permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.
If these artists were laid out on a continuum, Sprick would clearly fall at the establishment end. It's not hyperbole to say that he paints like an old master--his virtuoso technical skill in oil painting is combined with a remarkably sensitive eye for the way light falls on objects. It would be easy to say that his paintings have a photographic quality, but photos are flat in effect, while in a Sprick oil painting, the pictorial space is so emphatically expansive that the viewer may be tempted to walk into it.
This technical tour de force--the creation of three-dimensional space on a flat surface--is showcased in oil paintings such as "Fang Mark," which depicts a room cluttered with Oriental rugs and silks, plants and tribal masks. The yellow silk draped over the chair glows with translucence, the leaves of the houseplant let off a dull sheen, the heavy wool rug is flat. And Sprick's composition is far from predictable. Rather than constructing a typical arrangement of forms, the artist, by aligning the two masks, creates a strong off-center vertical, which is then set off by the diagonal of the houseplant's leaves.
Sprick presents a more standard composition--a downtown skyscraper canyon--in the oil on board "A View of Denver." In the foreground the buildings create their own shade, but beyond, sunlight makes the background shimmer. The effect is so well-achieved that one might wonder if this is the view out of a window instead of a work of art.
Technical accomplishment also marks Uffelman's tiny oil still lifes. Even more so than Sprick's work, the New Mexican's pieces look like photos--in particular, montages. But when they're examined closely, Uffelman's smooth surfaces reveal fine, tightly done cross-hatching--dots and dashes expertly employed to convey fruit, vegetables and sky. In "American Dream II," close-ups of beautifully portrayed oranges are set against a cloud-filled sky. It's a still life and a landscape at the same time.
It's left to Pirate co-op member Stockman, an unlikely goodwill ambassador, to create a bridge between these two gifted gentleman painters and self-proclaimed art hooligans Starr and O'Neill. Despite the fact that he falls well within the contemporary camp, Stockman's works, collectively called "Untitled (In Memorium)," demonstrate the same kind of traditional proficiency that Sprick's and Uffelman's do. His dark fields, his luminous skies, his human figures (even when they float in midair) are conventionally painted, as are oddball details such as cats with halos, stars with smiling faces and saints in brassieres. The images sound funny until one sees the paintings, which are somber and loaded with psychological content. The entire series, in fact, was partially inspired by the 1993 death of Denver artist Wes Kennedy.
Starr also seems to be interested in relaying a psychological state through the use of physical representations. In the case of his one major painting here, "Porcellus," the subject seems to be blinding anger as represented by snarling wild pigs. This painting, and a smaller related detail titled "Winged Pig," which was done subsequently, are reminiscent of O'Neill's animal paintings. Starr and O'Neill have influenced each other for years, for both good and evil, and it's hard to say which is the case here. Starr says these paintings are only superficially related to O'Neill's. He says his pigs, unlike O'Neill's "thorazine" sheep, have a "blood-in-the-face" fury, "like the skinheads." Stylistically, these paintings are primitive, pointedly recalling a medieval sense of space that is flattened and lacking in depth.
It's the modern world and not the medieval one that O'Neill recalls in a series of black-and-white oil paintings that are innovative, experimental and hard to look at. And like Stockman's and Starr's paintings, psychology, as much as or more than the subject matter itself, seems to be the artist's central concern. But even more than the others, O'Neill looks to the firm hand of art history for guidance--and it really pays off for him.
Referring to Picasso's cubism and surrealism and tipping his hat as well to Dal and even Kafka, O'Neill reformulates a 1960s Oklahoma high school yearbook. The geeky teenagers have been made geekier with the addition of horns in a portrait like "Young Buc" or the displacement of eyes and nose seen in "Man With Two Profiles." O'Neill makes the skin so plastic and flexible that many of the portraits have a disturbing, medical quality. Is the ear on the neck of "Woman With Two Profiles" a birth defect? O'Neill suggests it's more like waking up on the morning of the prom with a pimple.
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This body of work looks like a transitional moment for O'Neill--in fact, the changes are palpable as the viewer goes from one picture to another. In the earlier pieces, O'Neill is so busy inventing his new approach that he sometimes forgets to make the paintings look attractive.
But that's not the case with the two final works in the series, which are by far his best. In these portraits, the "high" art influence of modernism overtakes the "low" art inspiration of the yearbook photos. "Portrait of an Exotic Dancer" is a virtual rejoinder to Picasso that makes direct reference to the master's "Seated Woman With Hat" of 1938. O'Neill's "Seated Woman II" likewise pays homage to the greatest artist of our century.
There's no denying it--the appeal of realism to artists has steadily increased over the last few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the painters included in Modern Realism--Five Views were born, modernist abstraction had seemingly vanquished the use of identifiable subject matter in art once and for all. But the inevitable march of abstract art into the future faltered. And as this interesting if troublesome show demonstrates, not only did traditional artists keep the embers of realism alive, but so, too, did those whose work is thoroughly contemporary.