If I were asked to come up with a list of the most significant contemporary artists working in Colorado, Floyd Tunson would not only be on it, but he'd be near the top. The Manitou Springs-based artist, who taught for decades as a high school art teacher in Colorado Springs, has been exhibiting his intelligent and accomplished neo-pop paintings, prints and installations since the 1970s. Coinciding with a major survey of his work of the last decade or so that's on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Denver's own Sandy Carson Gallery is presenting Rudiments, a solo made up of some of Tunson's recent abstracts. It's one of two single-artist shows at the gallery right now. The other is Lines of Position, which features sculptures by Louisiana ceramic artist Jeremy Jernegan.
Many of the paintings in Rudiments are enormous, and several are on multiple panels. The Jernegans are a lot smaller, though they're still pretty large and are also multi-part compositions. The disparity of sizes presented an installation problem, because there are only a few walls at Sandy Carson big enough for Tunson's mural-sized pieces. William Biety, the gallery director, solved the problem in a bold, if tremendously risky, way: He mixed the two shows together, putting a Tunson here and a Jernegan there. It's outlandish to make two solos into one duet, but somehow Biety pulled it off. The Tunsons and Jernegans look fabulous together, with each artist retaining his individual autonomy.
It's possible -- in fact I instinctively did it myself -- to view the tandem show as two individual exhibits by first looking at the large Tunsons and then going back around to take in the more subtly appealing Jernegans.
The influence of first-generation pop art has long been present in Tunson's work, and his signature style features photo-based representational imagery that often references the African-American experience. Among all the pop artists, Robert Rauschenberg, as Biety points out, is clearly the main source of inspiration for Tunson, and not only in these paintings. In a similar approach to Rauschenberg's, Tunson places images on top of one another. Another pop device Tunson employs is repetition. In some pieces, he uses dot patterns, and in others, rows of horizontal lines arranged in rectilinear shapes.
Though the paintings in Rudiments are abstract, there's clearly some kind of representational imagery underneath it all. The heroic "Untitled #111," hanging just beyond the reception area, has an almost photographic quality -- though it's impossible to tell what the subjects of the source photos were. People and things on which the likenesses are based are obscured by others that Tunson has stacked up on top of them. He also cuts up the images and reassembles them, thus rendering what would be recognizable unrecognizable. The images, as submerged as they are, do connect these abstracts to Tunson's more straightforwardly representational paintings. Over the decades, he's swung between abstraction and representation, often doing both simultaneously.
Taking over the north wall at the front of the gallery is "Untitled #110," which is ten feet high and fourteen feet wide. The painting is made up of four separate panels arranged in a grid, and it combines a lot of expressionism with a little representation. I can make out grotesque heads on either side and a fetus placed in the middle, though they may simply be organic shapes.
Sometimes Tunson is very didactic and succinct in conveying messages in his work, as in his famous series on black gang kids that's part of the show in Colorado Springs. In those paintings, which incorporate photocopy transfer, Tunson visually compares the youngsters to canaries in coal mines. To him, they are an early-warning system for society, the way the hapless canaries were for miners, warning them of impending asphyxiation by simply dropping dead. At other times, Tunson's meanings are ambiguous, as in the abstracts that make up Rudiments.
Now it's time to go through the show again and take in the other solo, Lines of Position, made up of ceramic-and-steel wall sculptures by Jeremy Jernegan. These planar constructivist pieces are extremely restrained and therefore need to be examined carefully in order to be fully appreciated. In every perceivable way -- save the fact that both artists' works hang on the walls -- the Jernegans are completely different from the Tunsons.
Jernegan teaches ceramics at Tulane University in what is officially known as the Newcomb Art Department. For ceramic enthusiasts and historians, the name Newcomb really rings the chimes. Newcomb College, formerly a women-only institution, operated an art pottery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing some of the finest art-nouveau ceramics in the United States. Today, pieces made there are displayed in museums around the world.
So Jernegan is the heir to quite a heady tradition, and with the pieces at Sandy Carson, he's clearly holding up his end of it. And like the old Newcomb vases, his work reflects the most advanced artistic currents of its time.
The sculptures are basically constructivist. Jernegan makes a series of steel frames in geometric shapes, then places images -- typically, ocean waves -- in the frames. He then lines them up horizontally in both symmetrical and asymmetrical compositions, mounting most of them so they are canted out from the wall in elaborate arrangements.
When I first caught a glimpse of the Jernegans, I didn't realize that the images were done on ceramics until gallery director Biety pointed it out to me. Instead, I thought they were simply glossy photos. This wasn't as far wrong as it sounds, since Jernegan uses a photo-based method to transfer the images to the clay slabs. He employs a silkscreen process with photo-emulsion stencils and pushes the fine slip through the screen to "print' on clay slabs instead of paper. In addition, some of the slabs have a sculpted surface, the result of direct casting of the wet clay lying on a plaster panel that's been worked in low relief.
These pieces are extremely elegant, even if the form and the content are somewhat at odds. The shapes are minimalist, while the finishes are not. In a minimalist sculpture, monochrome panels would have sufficed, while photo-based surfaces of waves wouldn't. This makes the Jernegans examples of post-minimalism. Sandy Carson is one of the only contemporary galleries in the city that has made a specialty of ceramics, and considering the appeal of these sophisticated Jernegans, it's clearly the right call.
There's no reason that the combination of Tunson and Jernegan at Sandy Carson should be as successful as it is. I have seen other shows in which even related works didn't hold together as well. Chalk up this success to the value of good taste -- an increasingly rare commodity -- which William Biety apparently has.
Considering how outré his work is, it may seem strange to say that I think Andy Miller has good taste, too. Some evidence of this is his remarkable attention to detail, his fine craftsmanship and his innate understanding of filling space. But his works are more than beautiful; they also relentlessly address big ideas, most often difficult or troubling ones, such as life-and-death issues.
Currently, Miller is the author of a remarkable show, Andy Miller: When Does Something Qualify as Being Alive?, at Pirate: a contemporary art oasis. The show is spectacular, transforming the space so utterly that visitors enter a completely contrived world. It's a tremendously ambitious effort for an alternative space, and it demonstrates that there's still life in that old warhorse of a co-op.
Miller was an associate member of Pirate for a time; he was invited to become a full member this past summer. Despite the brief tenure, this is Miller's second smash hit at Pirate. The first was last year's installation of four monumental suicide sculptures from his "A Deconstruction of Life" series. The use of male and female figures in Being Alive is reminiscent of Miller's "Bathroom People," a two-part outdoor sculpture also representing male and female, which was installed at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art a few years ago. These previous efforts are the direct predecessors to the Being Alive installation now at Pirate. Like those earlier pieces, the newest work is comprised of simplified figures made of fabricated metal, though the Being Alive figures are more naturalistic than the earlier ones, if you can call solid silhouettes naturalistic. Being Alive goes beyond strictly formal concerns and delves into the realm of thoughts and feelings -- another similarity to the older works.
Pirate's main room is lighted with tubes of blue neon, giving it an ethereal and otherworldly atmosphere. The neon hangs by wires from the ceiling, and it's arranged at angles in something like a loose herringbone pattern that runs over the main part of the installation. The blue light creates an actual visual impairment for viewers, because no other illumination is employed. It's pretty dark in there.
The walls are gleaming white, with the monumental figures done in black or dark brown -- it's hard to tell in the blue light. The figures are truly gigantic, with their heads almost hitting the ceiling. (I thought about how hard it must have been to get them though Pirate's door.) The man and woman face one another across the room, but they are placed so far apart they seem to be more about aloofness than connection. The only thing that actually links the two figures -- at least metaphorically -- is a series of small chrome balls that hang from the ceiling on nearly invisible wires and catch the blue light beautifully. The balls are arranged in a Braille pattern to spell out the sentence "When Does Something Qualify as Being Alive?" The question is provocative and fairly open-ended, suggesting a variety of meanings when seen in relation to the male and female figures.
Andy Miller: When Does Something Qualify as Being Alive? demonstrates something that people often forget: Alternative spaces like Pirate are places where some of the best art shows in Denver can be found.
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