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William Stockman focuses on the figure at Ironton Studios

"Deluge," by William Stockman, charcoal on paper.

Over the last quarter-century, old-fashioned representational imagery has supplanted abstraction, which had dominated most of the cutting-edge art of the twentieth century and become the preeminent expression in the fine arts internationally. It's not that abstraction is passé; it's just that more and more artists have embraced the figure to tell their stories.

A good example of this change in sensibility is Denver Art Museum curator Christoph Heinrich's reinstallation of the permanent collection of the Modern and Contemporary Department ("New Look," August 28). He completely reconceived what's on view by bringing out pieces that are mostly about conceptual realism, a combination of hotter-than-hot conceptualism and tried-and-true realism. Heinrich, like mega-collectors and museum donors Vicki and Kent Logan, who are exerting a big influence at the DAM and elsewhere in the area, is a major proponent of this often easy-to-understand narrative and philosophical mode of aesthetics.

One encouraging thing about the re-install, called Focus: the Figure, is that Heinrich included works by a handful of Colorado artists, including a multi-part mural by Tony Ortega, a self-portrait by Bill Amundson and a metaphorical neo-neo-classical painting by Wes Hempel. When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Heinrich said he didn't pointedly include Colorado artists; it just happened because he liked these particular pieces. He feels that giving preference to local artists would be the wrong way to go, and on this point I disagree with him completely.

First, there's absolutely nothing wrong with affirmative action. Riffing on the belief that the DAM does too little for Colorado art, well-known benefactress Nancy Tieken, who used to live here but is now in Boston, once said to me that if our state's artists aren't shown at the DAM, in what museum should they expect to have their work exhibited? Second, Heinrich does understand hometown pride when it comes to his own, as he will demonstrate with a Daniel Richter blockbuster next month. Richter, like Heinrich, hails from Hamburg, Germany. It reminds me of Seth Goldenberg and Liz Newton putting together the underwhelming Dialog:City during the Democratic National Convention and then devoting a big portion to artists from Providence, Rhode Island, the pair's previous place of residence. Unlike Heinrich, however, Goldenberg and Newton didn't include any artists from Denver in their $1 million-plus extravaganza.

All of this is a setup for Internal Combustion, a handsome exhibit at Ironton Studios and Gallery made up of monumental drawings by Denver's own William Stockman. This show, though more modest in scale and scope, is every bit as compelling as Focus: the Figure — and about ten times more interesting than Dialog:City. In fact, as I was taking in the Stockman feature, it occurred to me that it looked like a lost gallery from the DAM. Had it been there, it would have been one of the best parts of the lot.

Though Stockman was among the best known contemporary artists in town a decade ago, he split for a few years and essentially gave up making art in lieu of making a living. Even after he got back in 2002, he found it hard to make art for about five years. Then, in 2006, he started working on his drawings and paintings again, and has seemingly not stopped for even a minute since. Last winter he unveiled new paintings and drawings in a powerful exhibit titled Nothing Is Hiding at the Singer Gallery ("Back Again," December 13, 2007), which quickly re-established his prime place in the city's art hierarchy. The work reflected his classic style: elegantly conceived figural compositions with underlying enigmatic narratives.

Internal Combustion represents a continuation of these ideas. But instead of having Stockman's paintings take over, the Ironton show is made up entirely of gigantic drawings of tremendous power and grace, all of which were done in the last six months.

Internal Combustion starts off with a big bang of a piece, a roundel called "Twin" that depicts a figure with his or her shadow behind and to the right. There's a frenetic black scribble on the figure's chest, which suggests a dark heart, or at least a sense of turmoil. Stockman has told me repeatedly that he has no specific narrative in mind when he conceives his pieces, but he does concern himself with the big issues, like life and death, love and loss, and even peace and war, at least in an internal, psychological sense.

Stockman's process is compelling. He draws every day, thus generating hundreds of works every month, and his inspiration comes from what he sees around him and from photos he encounters in the print media and on the Internet. Stockman also takes digital photos of things that strike his fancy and downloads them onto his computer, touching them up using an electric eraser. These become something like preparatory images for his finished works. Initially drawn in sketch books, Stockman's completed drawings depart drastically from the details of these preparatory pieces, as he uses his instincts to guide the lines, employing automatism so that he makes marks almost unconsciously.

To do the gigantic drawings at Ironton, he took the small originals and put them in an opaque projector, with the image aimed at a large sheet of blank paper. He carried out the subject matter in charcoal, and then, employing an air compressor, smeared and altered his lines. The results are tremendously accomplished.

When I entered the gallery proper, I had to catch my breath, the room was so beautiful. Stockman had told me that he thought this current crop of drawings were the best ones he's ever done. That might not be true, but I will say they are as good as anything he's ever done. Though all of the drawings are on enormous pieces of paper, one is even bigger than the others. "Headphone Party," which runs over two pieces of joined paper, depicts a bare tree occupied by a group of nude male and female figures who are connected to one another by the tree's branches and by the wires of their headphones. The composition is extremely complicated, as they are in most of the others. One of Stockman's greatest talents is the way he can construct awkward arrangements of forms that are neither symmetrically nor asymmetrically balanced, yet still retain compositional harmony.

Next to "Headphone Party" is "Visible Woman," which is almost — but not quite — traditional-looking. Stockman has arrayed three depictions of the same woman across the middle of the horizontal sheet. Moving from left to right, she's conceived as he envisions her, then as a sort of vaporous x-ray, and finally as a skeleton. It's spectacular.

It may be hard to say what "Headphone Party" and "Visible Woman" are about, but in other drawings, it's downright impossible to make sense of Stockman's images. In "Treasure Hunt," for example, a portly man works a metal detector on the left, while on the right, a seated figure who's also portly — perhaps the same man — sits under a loop of electric cording that glows like the sun, as suggested by the short radiating lines that surround it. Next to that is "Deluge," which shows a woman pulling a trash can out of the water with a rainy cloud that floats directly over her head, as though it's her own personal storm. Stockman says he was inspired by photos of flood victims trying to pick up the pieces of their everyday lives.

There's one drawing in the show that doesn't seem to fit with the others. Stockman sees it as a kind of resting place in the show. "Untitled Brick Construction, #14" depicts a brick wall; according to the artist, it was an effort to wall off a drawing that has given him trouble.

There are only a couple of days left to catch Internal Combustion, as it comes down this Saturday. I'd recommend that the DAM's Heinrich head there immediately, as I'm sure he would absolutely love it. And if I may be so bold, it might then be possible to see one of these drawings, or something else by Stockman, in Focus: the Figure — and from my point of view, that would really be wonderful.