"Untitled #109 (Old School Re-Mix)," by Floyd Tunson, 
    acrylic on canvas.
"Untitled #109 (Old School Re-Mix)," by Floyd Tunson, acrylic on canvas.

Three by Four

The Sandy Carson Gallery has kept its position as the flagship venue of the Santa Fe Art District by using a simple formula: Present only high-quality art shows. And that's precisely the case with the two wonderful offerings currently on tap. In the front half of the gallery is the fabulous Floyd Tunson: New Works, which focuses on recent abstract paintings by one of the state's most respected artists. In the back half of the gallery and in the conference room is Andrea Modica: Photographs, an in-depth look at an internationally known photographer who lives in Colorado.

Tunson has exhibited his work in the region's top spaces for almost thirty years. Over the decades, his style -- neo-abstract expressionist or pop-derived figural abstraction -- has evolved with the times. Thus, whether done in the 1970s, '80s, '90s or now, Tunson's paintings somehow always look credibly contemporary. The most amazing thing about this fortunate state of affairs is that Tunson has achieved it not by following every fad or fancy, but by exploring exactly the same ideas the entire time. The result of this long-term consistency is that even though these new Tunsons look radically different from the artist's earlier work, they still look like Tunsons.

A good example is the monumental "Untitled #108," which is hanging in the gallery's front window. The mural-sized painting stretches across three panels hung together in a horizontal row. The panels are expressively painted, with a surface rich in textural attributes. In some areas, there's thick, dripping paint; in others, the paint is so thin it seems to have been rubbed off. Tunson's palette also includes attractive opposites, such as the use of super-hot orange next to and around lots of super-cool sky blue.


Floyd Tunson: New Works and Andrea Modica: Photographs

Floyd Tunson: New Works and Andrea Modica: Photographs Through January 2, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

Kelli vs. Kelly Through January 3, Cordell Taylor Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927

The three panels are covered with ambiguous organic shapes that may represent recognizable things for all I know, but it's hard to tell because they're painted over. The painting was done in automatist bursts of color scattered across its entire length. Tunson has written that this automatism is akin to jazz. It's an insightful observation on his part, and he refers to Duke Ellington's and George Gershwin's art corollaries in his paintings, most apparently Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg.

Tunson frequently includes political messages in his pieces, particularly concerning the black experience, but this time there is only one painting, "Untitled #109 (Old School Re-Mix)," that emphatically addresses the African-American struggle against racism. The work depicts a room with a table and a window, though the subject may not be readily identifiable because Tunson has turned the scene onto its side. Right next to the table is a rectangle featuring two racist cartoon caricatures of African natives. The piece is fairly shocking, with the features of the natives cruelly exaggerated.

Abstraction is making a big comeback in contemporary art, as is painting. This makes sense: Few have the space for installations or the patience for videos. But it would be wrong to see Tunson as part of this revival, since he never stopped painting in the first place.

Tunson's paintings are loud, aggressive and vibrant, making them completely antithetical to Andrea Modica's photos, which are quiet, passive and contemplative. So you'll need to make a major shift in aesthetic gears to adjust to the change. I'm not sure why the two shows have been put together; the only commonality I can think of is that both artists live in Manitou Springs.

Modica is an important contemporary photographer who explores the relationship between posed photos, which could be seen as "fictions," and documentary ones, which could be viewed as "truths." In her photos, she attempts to blur the truth by confusing it with fiction.

Her standard method is to take photographs with an old-fashioned eight-by-ten view camera and then print the negatives in platinum, which is why she gets such rich and beautiful grays. Modica typically addresses the same subjects over a long period of time, returning again and again to the same family in some small town.

Her most famous series is called "Treadwell, NY," in which she photographed a rural family, keying in on the grossly obese teenage daughter, whom she posed in a variety of evocative positions. In one, the girl's hand has been wrapped in leaves and string; in another, her leg sticks out from under a blanket.

Modica's newest series, "Fountain, CO," which focuses on a farm family in southern Colorado, is obviously an outgrowth of the earlier "Treadwell" series. In both, there's an accomplished sense for composition and an impressive skill at orchestrating blacks and whites, even in the photos that are done entirely in grays.

The pairing of Tunson and Modica at Sandy Carson is a jarring one, but it ultimately works because both artists are so darned good.

Cordell Taylor Gallery, just off Broadway north of downtown, has also assembled the work of two disparate talents. But the venue is exhibiting a weirdo twosome instead of a pair of solos. What else could be expected? The chosen artists were brought together simply because they -- Kelli Scott Kelley and Warren Kelly -- share names that sound alike. The show is called Kelli vs. Kelly (Hey, shouldn't that be Kelley vs. Kelly?), and just to add to the confusion, Kelley's series of paintings is called "Warren," which, of course, is Kelly's first name.

It might be hard to keep their names straight, but you'll have no trouble distinguishing the work of these two artists. Kelley, in the front space, is interested in pointedly bad painting, while Kelly, in the back, is trying his best to be good. Both succeed in getting what they're after: Kelley's paintings came out creepy, ineptly done and awkwardly composed -- all intentional -- while Kelly's paintings are beautiful, accomplished and perfectly balanced, also on purpose.

What this means is that I have little to say about Kelley's paintings. I can't see any compelling reason why anyone would willfully create incompetent works when unwittingly incompetent ones are so widely available. Kelly's paintings, on the other hand, are extremely well done, a rare commodity in the current art world.

Kelly was born in New Mexico, and he currently lives in Taos, though he spent a couple of years here in Denver, which is how Cordell Taylor became aware of his work. The gallery is just one of the connections Kelly maintains with Denver; another is his associate membership in the Pirate co-op, where he had a solo last summer. His portion of the show at Cordell Taylor is the latest example of how Kelly's career is beginning to take off. Earlier this fall, several of his paintings were included in a show that was mounted at the prestigious Harwood Museum in Taos. That's right: In just a few months, Kelly went from Pirate's scruffy back room to an elegant gallery in the Harwood!

You won't wonder for a second how this happened once you take in his out-of-this-world paintings at Cordell Taylor. All of them are from a series titled "Loop," a word Kelly chose because of its ambiguity. "I like the word 'loop' because it has so many connotations. It describes the shapes I use, which are loopy, and it also describes my process," he says. "Instead of referencing subject matter, I'm referencing myself. My work needs to communicate, but it also needs to be about my own perceptions, about my own individual vision."

Kelly clearly considers himself a neo-modernist, and what he's doing is something new, though it's based on something old. Beginning in the 1920s, Taos was a center for modern art in the West, but in the 1970s the ball was dropped, and traditional landscape painting took over. Kelly sees himself as picking up the baton from previous generations' artists, such as Marsden Hartley, Beatrice Mandelman and Earl Stroh.

There's no question that he has succeeded. All of his paintings are wonderful, from the four tiny studies that are only inches across to the two huge ones that are almost seven feet tall and exactly six feet wide. The two big ones, "Tree of Life" and "Dancing Matachines," both acrylic and enamel on canvas, are masterful, and Kelly believes they're the best paintings in the show. I must say I agree with him, though I like a lot of the others, as well.

Despite his historicism, Kelly is forging an individual style, and these paintings do have a distinctive look. The palettes are difficult and include jarring juxtapositions, and the compositions are exceedingly thick with details. "I like to make things hard on myself," he notes.

Kelly's paintings are definitely worth checking out; unfortunately, you'll need to see the Kelleys in the front room first. Cordell Taylor forces all of us to make the proverbial journey from the ridiculous to the sublime -- and then makes us go back through the ridiculous to get out.

Kelli vs. Kelley will be the last show for Cordell Taylor, but the gallery's not closing; it's being reformulated and renamed. Next month it will be called (+) Zeile/Judish, as Ron Judish is now a partner with Ivar Zeile.

Gilbert Barrera will continue on as gallery director, and, at this point, the artists already represented by Cordell Taylor, such as Kelly, Karen McClanahan and Bryan Andrews, will retain their positions at the new gallery. However, Judish will be bringing in a raft of others, including Bruce Price, John Hull and Emmett Culligan. Sounds like the New Year holds a lot of promise in the form of exciting future art shows at (+) Zeile/Judish.


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