The Wild Side
Although Ron Judish Fine Arts is a commercial gallery, it seems more like a full-fledged museum because it presents permanent displays and unbilled offerings alongside its featured attractions.
On more or less permanent display are a robust Emmett Culligan sculpture, a ceiling-hung, photo-based installation by Bob Coller, and a group of nineteenth-century vellum drawings of the church in which the gallery is housed, drawn by architects Franklin Kidder and John Humphries.
An unbilled group show is in the large space in the back. It combines three solos from last month -- the neo-expressionist paintings of Catherine Kirkwood, the post-minimalist ones by Bruce Price and the nearly abstract photos of Cinderella City by Ron Pollard -- into a single group presentation.
And then there are the featured exhibits. The first of the three current ones is Javier Marin, which is impossible to ignore, as Marin's sculptures demand attention. Although the display is made up of only two pieces, they're gigantic, and they carry the entire front space at Judish. Each is a monumental head made of polyester resin and amaranth seeds mounted on a modernist steel stand. They're titled "Cabeza #1" and "Cabeza #2." Both were made in 2001.
Marin is a hot Mexican contemporary artist, and like many of his generation in Mexico and in the southwestern United States, he's interested in creating art that reconciles the elements of his country's mixed culture. Stylistically, the heads recall the Spanish half of Mexico's ancestral heritage and resemble Spanish Baroque sculptures. One of the materials, however, the amaranth seeds, reflects the other side of Mexican history, the Meso-American. These seeds were an important cereal grain for the Aztecs.
In the pair of rooms adjacent to the Marins is another of the featured exhibits, John Hull, which focuses on a ten-part painting cycle just completed by the contemporary representational painter.
The nationally recognized Hull was born in Connecticut in 1952. He has become well established and widely known around here since he left Yale University about five years ago -- where he was teaching and where he had been trained -- and took over as chair of the art department at the University of Colorado at Denver. Although he gave up that UCD post a couple of years ago, he still teaches art there.
The paintings at Judish were all done in the last year or so, which is pretty amazing considering the year that Hull has had. Last spring, while he was teaching full-time and preparing for three different solo shows across the country, Hull developed bronchitis. Since he was preoccupied and busy, however, he didn't do anything about it. As happens in a predictable number of such cases, the bronchial virus in Hull's lungs transferred to his heart, resulting in heart failure this past summer. Hull is now on the mend, back at work in his studio and teaching again.
In spite of his health problems -- he quit painting for two months, the longest hiatus from the easel he's had in a twenty-plus-year career -- these latest pieces are pure Hull. All concern an incident from his rebellious teenage years and are set in the early 1970s in Oregon. Though his dad was a physics professor, Hull didn't hang out with the brainiacs from high school; he sought out the roughneck bikers from the trailer park instead. It's this group of young guys, along with their families and girlfriends, who populate the paintings in the show.
The entire cast of characters is introduced in the first painting, "Picnic," from 2001, which is immediately to the right as you enter the show. Like all of the Hulls here, it's done in acrylic on canvas. It depicts a bucolic scene: a group of people gathered together at an outdoor party. In the way the people are dressed and the type of cars that are seen behind them, Hull fully communicates the fact that the scene dates back to the '70s.
In the center of the picture is a picnic table set with a checkered tablecloth; the table is in the deep shadows of the large trees that surround it. Among those sitting at the table are a man with his arm in a sling, a bare-chested man, and a middle-aged woman wearing glasses. These three figures will play a major role in the unfolding story of star-crossed lovers that is the topic of the entire ten-painting cycle. The lovers themselves are glimpsed off to the right in the sunlit background. By lighting the lovers and placing the other figures in shadows, Hull leads the viewer's eye back to the innocent-looking young woman and the vaguely dangerous-looking young man.
In this piece, as in the others, Hull conveys narrative content and detail through the poses the figures take. In the case of the young lovers, both are pulled back from one another, revealing their mutual shyness. Interestingly, though Hull has an expressive and painterly style, he also conveys facial expressions. Taken together, the pose and the gaze of the figures become extremely evocative and are fairly unambiguous.
In the second painting, "Riders," hung immediately to the left of "Picnic," the young man is sitting on a motorcycle, and the young woman is about to climb onto the back of it. In the doorway of a house is the man with his arm in a sling. On one of the other motorcycles is a man in a black T-shirt. According to Hull, the three men are a trio of thuggy, drug-dealing brothers he knew as a teenager.
The motorcycle ride becomes the pivotal event in the story, propelling all subsequent action. Across from "Riders" is "Is This It?" in which the middle-aged woman with glasses shows genuine concern on her face -- conveyed by Hull with a couple of brushstrokes. Hull says the older woman is the younger woman's mother, and she's worried about where her daughter is. "Every Thread of Summer" shows the mother discovering the young couple in a compromising position, with the young woman having removed her blouse.
One of Hull's great accomplishments is the way he captures light and atmosphere. Many of the paintings take place in the dazzling light of afternoon. The effect is so successful that you can literally feel the kind of day Hull is conjuring up. But since the paintings record a real event that occurred over the course of 24 hours, from one summer afternoon to the next morning, some of the paintings show the light turning to dusk.
One of these is "Conversation," in which the drama reaches its crescendo. The bare-chested man from "Picnic" brandishes a rifle at the man in the black T-shirt, who, we recall, is the young man's older brother. Hull says the bare-chested man is the young woman's brother and is protecting the family honor -- very Romeo and Juliet, although Hull says his inspiration was Joyce's Ulysses.
In "Minstrel in the Gallery," also set at dusk, Hull includes a self-portrait, his only appearance in any of these paintings. He shows himself leaning against the back tire of a muscle car and strumming on a guitar. Hull never played the guitar, but a musician is a universal and traditional symbol for an artist.
The next two pieces, "Incident at Stock Island" and "Sorry You Asked," are set at night. In both, people are engaged in intense discussions under artificial light emanating from nearby buildings. In "Incident," the police have been called. The poses struck by the two cops have a remarkable verisimilitude. The last two paintings are set the next morning, and although the police are still looking into the matter, everything is getting back to normal.
I walked through the show with Hull, and he explained the story to me. Although it is fairly complicated, a lot can be deduced, at least generally, in a purely visual way. But he did point out a couple of details I would have missed otherwise. One is the incorporation of his son Isaac's name, seen on signage and on the license plates of cars in many of the paintings. Another is the interplay of back, front and side lighting, which is carefully constructed to varied effect, depending on the time of day the painting is meant to capture.
The paintings take on a cinematic quality and unfold like scenes from a movie, which was intended. And although the incident itself is rather minor -- a gun pulled but not fired -- Hull imbues it with a sense of romance for the outlaw. There's no question but that his sympathies lie with those no-good biker brothers.
Interestingly -- or perhaps intentionally -- the third of the featured exhibits, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, also has a relationship to the movies and also romanticizes the outlaw. For diCorcia, it isn't bad-boy bikers but the equally hard-looking male hustlers who work the streets of Hollywood that capture his imagination.
There are other connections between these two artists aside from their shared fascination with rough trade. Like Hull, diCorcia was born in Connecticut, though a year earlier, and also trained at Yale. But the two have never met.
A world-famous contemporary photographer, diCorcia has found enormous success in the last decade with color-portrait photos of characters from the city streets -- like the hustlers in this show -- as well as homeless people in Times Square and even his eccentric friends in their homes. The photos look candid, but they're not; they've actually been posed.
The photos here date back to 1990-1992. At the time, the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack by conservative political forces in Congress. Among the issues raised was the NEA's funding of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which were overtly homoerotic. In 1989, diCorcia received his own fellowship from the NEA, and the next year, he decided to use the money to subvert the conservatives. He conceived of the series of photos of male hustlers, paying each model with some of the money he had gotten from the NEA.
In each photo, the hustlers are only a small part of a larger, more complex composition. Set in the early morning hours, "Major Tom, 20, Kansas City, Kansas, $20" shows a youth lying on the wet sidewalk next to John Lennon's star on the Walk of Fame. A strong diagonal that mirrors the pose of the reclining Major Tom is created in the background by the bus that's passing by on the street. "Gerald Hughes, about 25, Southern California, $50" depicts a black weightlifter in nothing but briefs standing in a lighted doorway; facing him in the foreground is a TV screen with the face of Bill Cosby on it. This juxtaposition lends a humorous component, an attribute that is seen in only a few of the other photos.
With the prospect of seeing four separate shows plus extras, a trip to Judish is an apparent necessity. But of special interest is the two-shot look at troubled youth from Hull and diCorcia. Taken together or separately, these complementary exhibits are thoroughly compelling.
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