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Opposites Attract

"Baby Why Not," by John Hull, painting.

In the year or so that it has been open, Ron Judish Fine Arts in LoDo has established itself as a key player in the contemporary art world in Denver. Its well-thought-out shows always feature an eclectic mix of the work of top local talents and nationally celebrated artists, and the installation is always perfect. It's just like a little museum.

Maybe its tremendous success is the reason the elite gallery has found itself the subject of a rumor that it is closing. "I'd like to know who's been saying we're going to close, because we're not," says a justifiably perturbed Judish during a recent conversation at his gallery. "If I find out who it is..."

It's not clear who's behind the slur, which, if believed, would cause undue concern for Judish's clients and artists alike. All I can say is that everyone who passed on the rumor to me (which I never believed and, in fact, had not even called Judish to verify) was connected in some way or another to one of Judish's crosstown competitors, who will remain nameless. (Personally, I think it would be great if this kind of thing would stop so that hot art-world gossip could return to the more typical, appealing and appropriate subject of who's sleeping with whom.)

Not only is Judish not closing, but the pair of solo shows on display there, John Hull: Recent Paintings and Jason Martin: Paintings, are clearly among the best exhibits around -- and that's quite a distinction in a year in which the local scene is crowded like never before with excellent shows.

At first glance, the pairing of Hull and Martin seems absurd, because Hull's style is narrative and representational while Martin's is minimal (neo-minimal?) and non-objective. But there are also similarities between the two. Both are pushing the edges of established realms in order to create contemporary pieces, both are more familiar to gallery patrons in Manhattan than in LoDo, and both have works on display right now at the Denver Art Museum -- so Judish isn't the only venue to pair the two. Hull's "Aftermath," an acrylic on canvas, is on the DAM's seventh floor, which is dedicated to American painting and sculpture. Martin's "Rodeo," an oil on aluminum, is at the entrance to the Stanton Galleries on the first floor, where modern and contemporary art is presented. The relative placement of the pieces, divided as they are by six floors, well expresses the artists' stylistic differences.

These differences come into clearer focus at Judish since their work has been placed closer together: John Hull is in the front, and Jason Martin in the back. The two shows meld together in the middle, where they overlap, with one Hull facing a pair of Martins.

Hull spent seven summers teaching at Colorado College as a visiting artist before he moved to the area last year to be the art-department chair at the University of Colorado at Denver. When he got the job, he was already an established painter with a degree from Yale, where he taught for many years. Hull has since relinquished his administrative duties at UCD and devoted himself exclusively to teaching drawing and painting.

Although he is no stranger to the state, Hull was unfamiliar to the exhibition-going public here. But he instantly entered the pantheon of the region's great contemporary painters last spring when John Hull: Narrative Paintings at the Arvada Center knocked everyone out with its brilliance and led to the DAM's decision to buy "Aftermath" for its permanent collection.

One of the most interesting aspects of Hull's paintings is their distinctive content, which a writer for the New Yorker called a combination of "Corot and Quentin Tarantino." The description is fairly apt, since Hull refers to the old masters, including Corot, especially in terms of his compositions and the naturalistic palette he prefers. His brushwork is gestural and expressive as he unerringly carries out the elements of his paintings. But the subject matter is edgy, looking at things like war and violent crime.

The pieces at Judish are more subtle, but they also take on a difficult topic: the dead-end kids who populate rural America. Like some of the paintings in Hull's previous show, many of these are related to one another and seem to be telling a story, with the same figures appearing in different paintings. But artist Hull is quick to add some provisos. "The paintings are not meant to be a chronicle, though they depict narrative events," he says. "They have been sequenced aesthetically and not chronologically. I could tell you which ones I painted first, but what's happening in the paintings is continually happening, like the events in a William Faulkner novel." And, like Faulkner, Hull attempts to "tell hard stories in an appealing way."

As it turns out, the stories are about Hull's own coming of age. "They tell the story of young love," he says. "When I was a senior in high school, my parents moved from Philomath, Oregon, to Buffalo, New York. At the time, I thought about staying, getting a job in a paper mill and settling down with my high school girlfriend. Lucky for me, she didn't want to marry some guy working in a mill, and it didn't happen."

Though the small town of Hull's memories is Philomath, the paintings are actually set in a couple of towns in Iowa that he visited last spring, Albia and nearby Pershing. He was on the way to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, to present a seminar when he stopped in Albia for lunch. Hull was captivated by the two run-down communities with their small, ramshackle buildings, dingy trailers and beat-up pickup trucks. "I thought, 'Why am I here? I'm here to tell the story of my own romance at a fairly early age, to explore the paths not taken.'"

Hull's method is to create sketches and painted studies of the landscape settings for his narrative pictures while executing separate figure drawings and paintings. He then combines the two in his mind to inform the creation of his finished easel paintings.

Since he draws directly from life and nature, however, setting his paintings some 25 years in the past led to some special problems. The old buildings haven't changed much, and old cars and trucks can still be found, but the way people dress has changed a great deal. "I had a heck of a time getting the hair right," he says. "We were pretty shaggy back then -- at least, I was." Apparently he was successful, because the hair and the clothes in his paintings are dead on for the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In "Motel," an acrylic on canvas, Hull depicts a somewhat desolate scene. A road is in the foreground, beyond which is a parking lot in front of a cheesy pink-stucco motel. Stopped in the road off to the left is a car with a man leaning into it on the driver's side. Off to the right, two girls stand back from the car. There is a stray dog on the extreme bottom right to provide a counterpoint to the figure group -- a technique used by those old masters. The meaning of "Motel" is slightly ambiguous, though the title and the two girls, one of whom is evocatively dressed in cutoffs and a tank top, seem to hint broadly at some kind of pay-for-play arrangement.

Hull takes up street fighting in "And for What," and teenage pregnancy in the gorgeous "Baby Why Not." Both are acrylic on canvas, as is everything else in the show.

In the central space beyond the reception desk, Judish has installed a mammoth Hull painting called "County Fair," which measures more than eleven feet across. Though it is as big as a mural and functions as one, Hull considers it "an easel painting, believe it or not." Even though it is set at night, the piece has no dark undercurrent.

Across from "County Fair" are the first of the Martin paintings. Hung side by side are "Popeye II," an oil on stainless steel from 1997, and "Boudoir," an oil on aluminum from 1998. Displayed alone in the spacious back gallery is "Vigilante," another oil on aluminum done in 1998. All three -- which came courtesy of the Robert Miller Gallery in New York -- are characteristic Martins. Each are monochromes. The artist applies thick coats of paint and then runs a sheet of corrugated cardboard through the colors, resulting in a pattern of wavy yet parallel lines.

The London-based Martin is part of that hotter-than-hot generation of artists whose accomplishments (and excesses) are currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum in the highly controversial Sensation exhibit that's been a lightning rod for reactionary critics (see below).

Although Martin, who is not yet thirty years old, is thrown in with the British bad boys and girls, his work is classic modernism and hardly the kind of thing to generate controversy. In fact, his efforts have been compared to the cerebral American minimalists and to the venerable American abstract expressionists, whom Martin himself lists among his sources. Seemingly unnoticed is his connection to fellow Brit Bridget Riley, who was a pioneer of op art in the 1960s. Like Riley's paintings, Martin's rely on parallel lines to create eye-dazzling visual effects placed right at the surface of the pictures.

Leave it to the inspired Ron Judish to pull off the unlikely pairing of these two shows at his glitzy gallery. So much for the rumormongers.


Last month, anthropologists announced a discovery in Europe: According to carbon dating, Neanderthals lived at the same time as the early Homo sapiens. Scientists further theorize that the two groups must have interbred and, rather than going extinct, as was previously believed, the Neanderthals must simply have been absorbed by the humans.

This scientific finding comes as no surprise to fans of professional wrestling, which often features participants with the super musculature, sloping forehead and single eyebrow that are the hallmarks of the Neanderthal lineage. Colorado Statehouse watchers are also unfazed by the news since they, like wrestling fans, are aware that the Neanderthals' progeny are still among us.

The most recent evidence of the continuing role played by Neanderthals under the Capitol dome is the current proposal to eliminate funding for a state program that dedicates 1 percent of the construction costs for state buildings to public art. The modest savings that would result -- less than $1.5 million has been spent on the program in the last seven years, or around $200,000 a year -- would be redirected to cover state building maintenance, which costs something like $60 million a year.

The reason we know that this proposal represents the work of Neanderthals and not Homo sapiens is that humans have indulged in the creation of public art meant for the edification of the community since the days of the cave painters, whereas there is no such tradition among our primate cousins. So when Representative Joyce Lawrence, a Republican from Pueblo who is a sponsor of the bill that would eliminate state arts funding (she will introduce it in January), told the Denver Post that "it's not the public sector's role" to pay for art, we can surmise that she is a Neanderthal. So, too, is her fellow Republican and anti-art ally, Representative Dave Owen from Greeley.

Lawrence and Owen are part of a national movement that opposes public funding for art. The most high-profile example of this movement is New York Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum over Sensation, a show that highlights contemporary art from Britain and includes a piece that combines a portrait of the Virgin Mary with a hunk of elephant dung. Among other things, Giuliani has tried to evict the museum, though it has been in the same building for more than a century. Luckily, a New York judge has restrained the city from punishing the museum in any way. The saga will continue, however, since the Giuliani administration has appealed the decision.

Some may have noticed that art bashers, those from around here and those from around the country, are members of the Republican Party. Thus, despite the fact that Minnesota governor and former wrestling star Jesse Ventura is a member of the Reform Party, most present-day Neanderthals have wound up as Republicans.