Denver artist Jeff Starr became famous locally in the '80s, but in the late '90s, he took a powder and disappeared. Last year he made a big comeback when his work was selected for the 2003 biennial at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. Artists step in and out of the exhibition world at will, but what made Starr's re-emergence so unusual was that he changed his medium during his hiatus.
How he went from painting to sculpture is the topic of Jeff Starr: A Way of Life, now at Rule Gallery. The striking exhibit pairs the paintings Starr did a decade ago with the ceramics he's done in the past couple of years.
Starr learned ceramics the same way he learned to paint -- with only a little technical training. A quick study, Starr spent just one semester in college before launching his impressive painting career. Similarly, he took only a few ceramics classes as preparation for his successful foray into sculpture. In both cases, he taught himself the necessary skills with breathtaking ease.
Born in 1956 at Fort Dix, in New Jersey -- his dad was in the United States Air Force -- Starr moved with his family to Littleton in 1973. In 1978 he began to get serious about being an artist and spent that one semester at the University of Colorado at Denver. "Basically, it's how I've always operated. I'll take one class and just get enough to figure it out," he says. Starr wound up at UCD because he wanted to work with John Fudge, whose work he'd seen in a show at the Denver Art Museum. "He was very good," he says of the late artist/instructor. "Very systematic about how you put together a painting and about how to apply paint -- just what I needed, with nothing theoretical."
Starr's first mature paintings were allegorical depictions of his own struggles. "Doing self-portraits was out of necessity. I started not finding stuff to paint, so I became this persona," he says.
Starr established his name through private sales, but he did not exhibit in galleries until 1980, when he lucked out and was selected for the Colorado annual at the DAM. I daresay few young artists can claim that their work was first publicly exhibited at an art museum.
Having his work at the DAM gave Starr instant art-world status and led to his representation by the Sebastian-Moore Gallery, the flagship venue of the time. In the next few years, he went through a series of dealers before winding up at what was then called Payton-Rule in 1988. Despite this ongoing relationship with one of the city's top galleries, Starr kept a low profile, and his last solo at Rule was in 1996.
"Painting got more and more difficult, and I got to the point where I was investing too much in it," Starr explains. "It was nice to go to a different medium, where I didn't have as much of the self-critical facility to impede me. It was so brand-new. It was pleasurable, the way painting was when I started. I recommend changing mediums to all artists."
The show is not arranged to give the viewer a direct guide to Starr's development from painter to sculptor, but the point is made in several ways. There are the early sculptures that led to the paintings, the paintings themselves, and the more recent sculptures that came out of the paintings.
On a stand along the west wall are a large group of his "Inclusions," the earliest three-dimensional pieces, which are made of Sculpey Clay encased in cast acrylic. The acrylic was used to preserve the forms, which otherwise would be constantly malleable. Starr used these small sculptures as models for his paintings, placing them in imaginary environments. Examples of this type of work are "Deviant," from 1992, and "The Spiral," from 1997, both in oil on linen.
The ceramics steal the show, however. Some are organic abstractions, like the ones Starr showed at the MCA, while others are tight realist sculptures, like "Rustic Tableau," a luster-glazed rendition of a stump with a bag of money on it. Stumps and logs are used for several of the sculptures, with Starr explaining that his inspiration was classic cartoons, in which stumps are frequently used as props, typically with signs affixed to them. In fact, cartoon imagery is everywhere. There's "Silver Galleon," based on a sailing ship that looks like something out of "Prince Valiant," and "El Pato," which depicts a hobo duck that looks like vintage Disney. The form of "El Pato" is simplified, and it has a monumental quality that's enhanced by the rich brown luster glaze.
Another show that's definitely worth shoehorning into even the busiest schedule is Shadows and Fog: Margaret Neumann, a strangely compelling solo installed on the mezzanine at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. I'm amazed at how many people have raved about it and urged me to give it some attention. It's easy to see why a rare Neumann sighting would generate so much interest: As Simon Zalkind once noted, Neumann is "the grandmother of neo-expressionism in Colorado."
Like Starr, Neumann was well known in the '80s but has rarely exhibited in the past several years. And again like Starr, her appearance at the MCA has reinvigorated her career and upped her profile in the local art world. This show includes what could be called recent work, even though some of the paintings are fifteen years old, because in the context of Neumann's oeuvre, that is recent. You see, it takes Neumann eighteen months to two years to complete one painting. Given that there are eight paintings in the show, she would have had to start them fifteen years ago. "I work like hell on them. It's hard for me to know when to stop. It's hard for me to pull back," she says.
Neumann was born in New York in 1942. Her parents met at Columbia University; as Jews who had both fled the Holocaust, they had a lot in common. "My first language was German," Neumann notes with a grimace. In 1948, her family moved to Denver, and she grew up in Crestmoor. In 1960 she entered Colorado College in Colorado Springs and studied with the late Mary Chenoweth. "Mary Chenoweth was very nice, really, and a good artist, but she was very eccentric -- she wore capes!" Neumann says. "I was only seventeen, and she was so strange...I didn't like her, and she wasn't good for me." Neumann left CC after two years and went to Columbia University for a summer session, which she loved. She then returned to complete her BFA in 1964 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she also earned an MFA.
In Boulder, Neumann found the mentors she lacked at CC. George Woodman, Luis Eades and Joe Clower were significant to her development as a painter -- even if they often shook their heads in disbelief when they saw what she was doing. "You know, I'm a really stubborn person, and like most people who think they have some kind of vision, I knew I was right," she says. "And so I just stuck with it."
Neumann's process is contemplative, which is why the paintings take so long to do. "I get some idea for an image, and I put that image in, and I'll really work on it, and finally I think, I can't do anything with this image!" she says. "So then I do something else, and out of that comes something, and out of that comes something. It's kind of like therapy -- and remember, I am a therapist." (In addition to her other degrees, Neumann holds an MSW and works with children at the Jefferson County Center for Mental Health, as well as maintaining a private practice.)
"The paintings are about me. They have a lot to do with being the kid of Holocaust survivors, about anxiety and depression," she says. None of this is hard to believe: The paintings in the show are both challenging and troubling. And there's the Shadows and Fog title, which sounds like a documentary about the concentration camps. Though the paintings are about Neumann, she says that the female figures in them are not meant as self-portraits, but are taken from her dreams -- or would that be nightmares?
The images Neumann uses are almost always the figure handled expressionistically on what is essentially a color field that suggests either water or sky. Like the figures, the rich palettes are also inspired by her dreams. "I dream in the wildest colors," she says. "A lot of people remark on the surfaces of my paintings, but that happens because I put so much paint on." The many layers of pigments allow colors to appear in gorgeous blends on the surface.
As beautiful as the colors are, these are really tough paintings to look at. In "Witness #2," it's the profiles of two women who seem to be veiled in blood; in "Ecliptic," a man is looming over a submerged woman; in "Gift," a bather in an impossible pose is likewise floating in water. They are memorable, to say the very least.
In a way, Neumann's 1980s painting style is way out of date. But what goes around comes around, and it seems ripe for reappraisal. I guess that's why the MCA has chosen to give us this opportunity to do so.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.