Jerry Kunkel's name is well known in these parts: He's been on the art faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder for more than thirty years, and for a while in the 1970s, he fronted the punk band Joey Vane and the Scissors. But though many people have heard of him -- and some have even heard him -- far fewer have actually seen his artwork. Kunkel's exhibition drought began to break in the spring of 1999, however, when the Robischon Gallery presented a small Kunkel solo. Now he's at it again with an enormous show of recent paintings at Robischon called Jerry Kunkel: Conscious Ground, which has been installed in the nooks and crannies of the gallery's front section.
Born in 1944 in Mansfield, Ohio, Kunkel's recollections of his childhood aren't fond, but he's come to see the humor of life in a factory town. "I saw pictures of white snow, but I thought snow was orange," he laughs. "Mansfield was one of the most industrial places you've ever seen. My dad used to bitch about the paint peeling off his car -- it was acid rain or something, and he thought it was cheap paint! We didn't know about pollution then."
Despite "bad grades and being a rebel," Kunkel got into Ashland College in Ashland, Ohio, where he studied studio art. It was a natural for him. "Since I was old enough to hold a pencil, I could draw things," he says. After graduation, he went on to Southern Illinois University, where he first became aware of racism and got involved in the local civil rights movement. "It was probably under my nose all along -- but it was in Carbondale [Illinois] that I began to realize that things were really messed up," he says.
In 1968, with a brand-new MFA, Kunkel got his first teaching job, at Findley College in Findley, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, he met Roland Reiss, a teacher at CU, and Reiss told him about an opening in the art department there. "The only thing I knew about Boulder was that Walter Cronkite had done a report on long hair on men, and it was filmed in Boulder, which sounded good," Kunkel says, pulling out his 1969 CU faculty ID card, which shows the artist with long hair. He found his element in Boulder's counterculture and became involved in the city's large anti-Vietnam War movement.
In the '70s, Kunkel worked in a hippie-friendly style that featured dense, lyrical drawings with enigmatic and magical elements in the form of representational images, including the figure. "I did a whole series on Merlin the Magician as a teenager. You know, with all the raging hormones. The [Denver] art museum has one of them. They are abstract, but with naturalistic elements." An art critic for the Los Angeles Times compared Kunkel's work to that of California artist William Wiley, something that Kunkel says "really bummed me out."
As a result, Kunkel abandoned drawing in 1982 and began to create photo-based work. For the next ten years he made large-format color photographs using recognizable objects montaged with text. Photography interested him because of the conceptual issues raised by the medium itself. "A photo is perceived to be real, but it isn't," he says, adding that a photo is an art object that doesn't reflect objective reality but rather the subjective eye of the photographer. But Kunkel missed what he calls "the touch of my hand," and so in 1992, he went back to the easel and oil paints.
Most of the paintings in the show at Robischon, like those in his earlier outing, are multipanel compositions sporting representational images painted more or less traditionally. But while the pieces from the first show were dark and referred to Baroque paintings in both subject matter and palette, the newer paintings are notably lighter and brighter. "I concentrated on jumping the color a lot," says Kunkel. Also unlike the earlier paintings, which were set in some remote historic past, the latest batch, which date from late 1999 and earlier this year, clearly concern present-day events.
The majority of the paintings are made up of two or more painted panels joined together to form an individual work. Each panel has been painted individually, with its own imagery. Kunkel's goal in linking different images is to lay out pictorial narratives -- telling stories with pictures. But the meanings of these stories are hard to decipher, even with Kunkel's free-association explanations. "The paintings, with their juxtapositions, all come out of my unfinished novel -- it might never be finished -- 'Shaving in the Dark.' The title says it all: It's about the impossibility of doing things," he says.
The novel is not a written one, but a painted one. Made up of nearly 200 small paintings lined up to form a single piece that will be more than fifty feet long, "Shaving in the Dark" will tell Kunkel's life story. "It's about everything I can think of at the age of 56, so in one sense, it's an autobiography," he says.
He's not kidding. There are several perceivably distinct currents in Conscious Ground that concern a wide range of subjects, from the landscape to toy action figures. All of the pieces have been painted in the same representational style, and Kunkel's photography background is obvious. Instead of painting scenes from nature, Kunkel paints from photographs, and the flatness of the photo original comes through in the finished pictures. Unlike many artists who use photographic models, Kunkel doesn't delve into hyper-realism, but instead uses traditional representation in the academic style. What separates his paintings from contemporary neo-traditional ones are the unusual connections he makes between one subject and another, and the tight, non-traditional cropping he prefers.
Facing us as we enter the gallery is one of the largest and most important paintings from his recent work. "Waiting" is an oil-on-canvas triptych that the artist calls a landscape. Its monumental central panel depicts a modest motorboat, its pale yellow paint job badly in need of a touch-up. The boat is tied up at dock. The bottom half of a gas pump is seen at the top right of the panel. On the left is a meticulously accurate painting of a tumbler filled with water; the right side of the glass is cut out of the picture, replaced by a vertical row of squares. An old rocking chair that is missing a seat fills the right panel. Like the glass, the chair has been cut off, in this case at the top and on both sides.
In "Waiting," as in a number of his paintings, Kunkel suggests the presence of people without actually including them. "They're about the human in absentia, the natural occurrence in the human-made scenario," he says.
Some of Kunkel's paintings have a lyrical if ambiguous character, like "Training it to...," an oil-on-canvas diptych that shows a painting of a geyser on the left and a framed picture of a woman feeding a dog on the right. The picture is hung on a garishly papered wall.
Other paintings are not so much lyrical as they are amusing, and some of them are essentially sight gags. "The Softer Side," for example, shows a red plastic figure of a wrestler next to a heart-shaped satin pincushion. "The wrestler is this ironically inert symbol of strength," Kunkel says. "I found him at Toys 'R' Us and put him on my palette. The pincushion is soft, but in contradiction, it's pierced by pins. The painting's about irony and humor. Can something be funny without being ironic?"
"Trophy" is even more slapstick, but it's funnier than "The Softer Side" without being so ironic. In this piece, another diptych, Kunkel has painted a stained pair of jockey shorts next to a painting of a fire hydrant.
Two large paintings, each on a single canvas, are exceptions to this human-in-absentia theme. In "Everyday Anticipation" and "Everyday Anticipation #2," Kunkel has included human subjects, although he has hidden their faces under masks made from paper bags.
The first painting is divided into two parts. On one side is a man standing in front of a backdrop of flower-patterned wallpaper; on the other is a landscape painting of a mountain road. In the mid-ground is a sign that reads "Wedding," and below that, "next left" in parentheses. "I really saw this sign, but I changed it slightly," Kunkel says. "Notice that in the painting, the road curves to the right."For "Everyday Anticipation #2," Kunkel captures a crying woman seated in bed. We know the woman is crying because she's holding a tissue to the paper bag over her head. According to Kunkel, the other half of the painting reveals the reason for her consternation: "Her boyfriend is out swimming instead of being by her side."
One of the most impressive features of Conscious Ground is that despite Kunkel's prolific output, his accomplished skills as a painter shine through in every piece. "When Jim [Robischon] called me at the end of May and gave me the opportunity for this show, I really started working," he says. "I was painting twelve hours a day, seven days a week for a while. I got so carried away that I even did three other paintings that there just wasn't enough room for."
Such a Herculean effort sets a high standard for the many upcoming solos set to open around town during the next couple of months.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.