Despite the many stylistic revolutions of the last century, the old hidebound pursuit of the depiction of external reality has persisted. In some cases, the rendering of external reality is conservative, as in neo-traditionalism, which occupies its own world. In others, it's employed in what used to be called vanguard or cutting-edge art — for instance, in conceptual realism. And for the rest, the lingering realist sensibilities lie somewhere between these two poles.
The artist at the center of In Thin Air: The Art of Phyllis Hutchinson Montrose, at the Kirkland Museum, makes for an interesting case in the discussion of representational art. As her peers in the post-war era began to move toward abstraction, Phyllis Montrose went her own way, embracing the representational surrealism of the Dalí/Magritte stripe, which was a decidedly pre-war sensibility.
Strangely, even though she was totally behind the times, she wound up being ahead of them, at least in retrospect. By an odd twist of art-historical fate, she caught up with contemporary art in the '80s without changing her approach — all because of the rise of neo-surrealism. From the perspective of the present, her paintings look like they were done in the '80s, but some of them date back to the '60s. I can easily imagine her work in a group show alongside the later efforts of the late John Fudge, for example.
There's something else that makes Montrose intriguing as a topic: She was part of a once-flourishing and now virtually forgotten — and essentially undocumented — art scene in Central City. Starting in 1929, Denver-based preservationists, including arts patron Edna Chappell, oversaw the restoration of the 1870s-era Opera House, and summer performances there attracted an arty crowd, one that included Vance Kirkland.
Montrose was born in Denver in 1928; when she was eighteen, her mother bought a house in Central City so that they could attend the opera together during the summers. In 1948, Montrose studied with Julio de Diego, a distinguished visiting artist at the University of Denver's School of Art, which held classes in Central City. In the early '50s, she studied with Angelo di Benedetto, who taught in Denver but lived in Central City. (Montrose later worked with di Benedetto on his "Justice Through the Ages" mural, which was destroyed when the 1970s Colorado Supreme Court building was demolished.)
The show at the Kirkland, which was organized by director Hugh Grant and curator Chris Herron, begins with work Montrose did in the '40s, the most remarkable of which is a watercolor titled "New Inhabitants — Central," which depicts the well-dressed dandies gathered at the Teller House bar in Central City. The earliest piece in her signature surrealist style is 1965's "The Visitor," in which a number of spheres are scattered over a checkerboard floor, with a gigantic face peering at the viewer. Montrose traveled widely and was especially familiar with Italy and the paintings of the Italian Renaissance. The way she uses perspective — and her taste for checkerboard floors — broadly refers to what she saw on her travels.
Many of the paintings are weird, like the incredibly tiny "The Hunting Party," which shows a nude woman lying on a chaise longue on a motorized vehicle driven by an alligator wearing a crown. The exotic car has a giant face at the front and a man in a game basket at the rear. It's about women trapping men. One of the newer paintings, "Illusion," from 1985, shows a brick-and-plaster wall being folded back like a sheet of paper, revealing the sky behind it. A wonderful element is the looped rope that hangs in the foreground.
Without taking anything away from the impressive collection of decorative arts housed at the Kirkland, I think the museum's greatest strength is its relentless promotion of Colorado art. Montrose was essentially unknown before this show, and now she's a part of our homegrown art history.
Another variation on representational imagery is the accomplished hyperrealism seen in the impressive exhibit Monique Crine/Grey Towers, which closes this weekend at Goodwin Fine Art.
Crine is a Denver artist who's been showing her wonderful photos, drawings and paintings around here over the past five years or so. This show is dominated by her paintings, though it includes some works on paper. From what I've seen, Crine likes to work on multiple related pieces that exemplify a singular theme — and the theme this time is President John F. Kennedy, in particular his association with both of her grandfathers.
Crine's paternal grandfather took a series of photos of the president when he was dedicating the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Pennsylvania. (Crine's paintings, like her grandfather's photos, which are included in the show, are black and white.) Just two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; Crine's maternal grandfather witnessed the shooting and saw Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas School Book Depository.
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Because of the totemic character of the original news photos of Kennedy in Dallas, seeing any depiction of the president casually leaning against the back seat of an open Lincoln, lit by the full sun, inevitably brings the assassination to mind. So even though the photos on which Crine has based these paintings have nothing to do with Kennedy's death, viewers can't help but think about that tragedy as they walk through the show. Crine's motorcade paintings — notably "JFK 1," which shows the president seated in the slowly moving car and shaking an unseen person's hand, and "JFK 3," where he strikes a classic seated pose — are among the most powerful and monumental paintings in the group.
Also interesting are the large paintings of the crowds, such as "JFK 2," in which a throng of well-wishers are lined up along a split timber fence. These paintings don't include depictions of Kennedy, but instead function to convey what it must have been like to have actually been there. And as gallery director Tina Goodwin pointed out, these crowd pictures, in particular "JFK 15," have subtle painterly elements and distortions of the details, which may indicate a new direction for Crine.
The paintings definitely show off Crine's skill in the hand/eye-control arena, but the exquisite watercolors on paper do that in spades. In those, Crine has paired little sketches of bust views of men, including Kennedy, that are as accurately detailed as photos of them would be.
The longevity of interest in representational art makes a lot of sense. Of course people enjoy seeing other people depicted in art; that explains the popularity of movies and television. Along those same lines, I think many would find the Montrose show at the Kirkland and the one at Goodwin devoted to Crine worth checking out.