Though abstraction has made a big comeback in the early part of the 21st century, representational imagery is still a persistent interest for painters and sculptures. To prove it, there are a number of shows on view right now that delve into the idea of depicting exterior reality through either realism or conceptual realism. Among these Denver offerings are three that stand out.
First is The Silence of the Ordinary: Susanne Mitchell, a small show dedicated to the artist’s recent representational paintings at the intimate Mai Wyn Fine Art. Mitchell recently returned from a six-month residency at the Greatmore Studios in Cape Town, South Africa. Though she was born in New York and educated in California and Colorado, she married and has a child with a man from Malawi, so part of the point of the residency was to connect her son with his relatives in Africa.
"The Madam," by Susanne Mitchell, oil and acrylic on canvas.
Being white and middle-class, Mitchell was particularly struck by the lingering race and class issues in South Africa, and the ambitious multimedia paintings that make up this show are meant to highlight those concerns. In several of the paintings, Mitchell keys in on the dynamic of downtrodden domestic workers in Africa and their relationships to their employers and to South Africa’s European colonial history. A clear example is “The Madame,” a mural-like work that includes a Mitchell self-portrait in the background balanced by a magisterial African woman in the foreground. The title should refer to Mitchell herself, since she is the “madam” of her household, but going by the painting, it could also refer to her regal maid.
An interesting aspect of these paintings is Mitchell’s use of found patterns in the form of old wallpaper swatches, lace doilies and tablecloths. The wallpaper she used, which she found in a Cape Town junk shop, depicts an idyllic eighteenth-century scene. In it, formally dressed men and women are rendered under picturesque trees. The mood of these images are set in stark contrast to the depictions of life in Africa today, which she paints on top of, or next to, the scenes depicted in the wallpaper.
"Birds Don't Lie," by Susanne Mitchell, oil and acrylic on canvas.
The lace is more subtly employed; in some of the paintings, Mitchell laid the fabric down while the paint was still wet, then removed it so that the pierced patterns of the cloth appear as three-dimensional, having left the marks of its contours.
Though her style is straightforwardly realist, Mitchell assembles images and partial images in the way pop artists would. This is particularly shown off in the wonderful “Everything,” in which she puts together a pair of headless socialites in evening gowns standing on columns that conjure up the colonial past, with a young African boy and a bird in flight representing Africa itself. One enigmatic element is the pair of men’s shoes on a red carpet, a reference to Kanye West.
"The Raffle: Hipsters be Like," by Shawn Huckins, acrylic on canvas.
The second show, Shawn Huckins: The American_tier at Goodwin Fine Art, is more clearly pop-derived, being made up of meticulously executed paintings — often of other paintings — with text passages imposed on top of the imagery. The exhibit is coherent and sometimes funny, and the work is of a consistently high quality.
Huckins has created fairly exact copies of early-nineteenth-century paintings and photographs and then superimposed text across the face of them. Interestingly, the text has not been painted over the images in the pictures; rather, the letters have been masked-out with tape, which Huckins painted around.
“Fishing on the Mississippi…,” by Shawn Huckins, acrylic on canvas.
A good example of his successful formula is “Lighter Relieving A Steamboat Aground.” Huckins began with a famous George Caleb Bingham painting of men on a raft done in 1847 that was reproduced precisely in acrylic. The caption that runs across the painting reads “Cracking Jokes and Drinking While Everyone Trying to Be Art Serious.” Another sendup of a Bingham is “Fishing on the Mississippi...,” with the caption “Cuz Dey Broke, But Alwys Hv $$$ 4 Whisky.” Huckins also uses period photos, as with the 1860s Matthew Brady portrait of Abraham Lincoln with text blocking his mouth that reads “Whatever.”
Huckins’s mentor is Ed Ruscha, a pop artist who later embraced conceptual art. These Huckins paintings are examples of hyperrealism, but with a twist, as he’s replicating existing depictions as opposed to rendering actual scenes he comes across. And he carries them out in such a way that they ape the originals, save for the text.
Detail of "Abraham Lincoln: Whatever," by Shawn Huckins, acrylic on canvas.
The show’s title is meant to equate the early images with written passages from the digital world of texts and tweets. Huckins sees both the antique imagery and the hipster words as evocative of two distinct kinds of frontiers, pointing out that early pioneers sometimes went for months without any communication, while today it takes seconds to send a message around the world.
And there’s yet another cultural disconnect that’s hidden in plain sight: Huckins found the nineteenth-century material images he used for his inspiration via searches on the Internet.
"Linda," by John DeAndrea.
Denver Art Museum
The last of the three contemporary representational shows I’m discussing is Starring Linda: A Trio of John DeAndrea Sculptures, in the Martin and McCormick Gallery on Level 2 of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building. DeAndrea is the premier contemporary realist in Colorado, and the “Linda” of the title is his super-realistic rendition of a reclining nude woman that happens to be one of the DAM’s best-known works. Created in 1983 in oil polychrome paint on cast polyvinyl with real human hair, “Linda” comes out of the darkness of storage only once every few years and then only for a few months. This is because the materials it’s made out of were experimental when DeAndrea used them, and they turned out to be fairly delicate and can thus easily degrade under gallery lights.
"Clothed Artist and Model," by John DeAndrea, polychrome paint on polyvinyl.
Denver Art Museum
This time around, curator Gwen Chanzit put the sculpture in the context of two other DeAndreas. The first, “Clothed Artist and Model,” was done in 1976 and recast in 2010. It was made of those delicate materials, too, so when it was recast, under DeAndrea’s supervision, the original polyvinyl was switched out for bronze. The piece, which is a sculptural group, depicts DeAndrea himself standing to one side; seated in a chair on the other side is a nude woman partially encased in plaster as the artist creates a mold.
"Nude with Black Drape," by John DeAndrea, painted bronze.
Denver Art Museum
The last of the three pieces, “Nude With Black Drape,” which depicts a semi-reclining African-American woman, was just created last year. It reveals that DeAndrea is still at the top of his game formally and in terms of his finishes. Chanzit pointed out that people often marvel at DeAndrea’s skills as a sculptor but sometimes don’t notice how good of a painter he is. It’s this ability, however, that makes these pieces look like real people.
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