It's sort of funny. LoDo's Robischon Gallery, one of the city's most straight-laced contemporary outlets (it sells the work of Robert Motherwell, for heaven's sake), often shows some of the oddest and most raucous exhibits around town. That's surely the case with the holiday offering Robert Hudson: Ceramics, Sculpture, Drawings, which highlights some recent accomplishments by a San Francisco artist who first came to fame in the 1960s with the funk style, an offshoot of pop art. As the show reveals, Hudson's style has changed little over the intervening decades.

Hudson was born in Salt Lake City in 1938. When he was a child, his impoverished family relocated to a trailer park in Richland, Washington, where one of his friends was William T. Wiley, who, like Hudson, would go on to become a major West Coast artist. In 1958 Hudson entered the San Francisco Art Institute, then the unrivaled center of contemporary art in California. He earned a BFA in 1961 and an MFA in 1963, by which time he was already nationally recognized as a founder of the Bay Area variant of the funk movement. His greatest early achievements came in the field of sculpture, though he had been trained as a painter. Perhaps that training was the reason Hudson began in 1963 to paint his sculptures of found objects, which had previously been finished in monochromes, typically the color of the bare metal he used to make them.

Ceramics, Sculpture, Drawings is Hudson's first solo show in Denver, and it's a rare local appearance for the artist, whose work was last seen here twenty years ago in a group show at the Denver Art Museum.

The Robischon exhibit includes a new example of Hudson's painted sculpture and a recent piece that returns to his earlier days. Both are visible through the gallery's display windows. As we enter, the brightly painted piece "Blue Redtail Hawk" fills the entry space; it is the most impressive object in the show. As with many of Hudson's works, the point is to soften the distinction between painting and sculpture. This assemblage, made of found objects, takes up the topic of the artist's studio. On a red-painted wooden easel, Hudson has placed a canvas that is densely painted with ambiguous, nominally representational elements -- mostly in cool blues, but with just the right accents in fiery yellow and orange. Suspended in front of the canvas is an antique rug beater with an animal horn pushed into it; below that is a child's sandbox pail. The hanging components fool the eye; at first they appear to be part of the two-dimensional painting. Hudson also used billiard balls, a broken wagon wheel and a cowboy hat painted to match the canvas, as well as a panoply of other objects.

Opposite "Blue Redtail Hawk," almost right against the window, is the more subtly hued "Say It With Flowers." This work is purely sculptural, with little or no reference to the medium of painting. On a circular stainless-steel base, Hudson has mounted a series of metal forms in bronze and stainless steel, which results in a much-quieter-than-expected visual effect dominated by grays and browns. While Hudson has included an old painted metal toy as part of the piece, he mostly leaves the surface in a natural state, with tonal variations created by the different metals.

Ceramics, Sculpture, Drawings also features more than half a dozen of Hudson's ceramic sculptures, which inhabit a category of their own. The artist became interested in ceramics in the early 1970s, more than a decade into his professional career. Working with California ceramic artist Richard Shaw, Hudson produced his first slip-cast porcelain sculptures in 1973. They were shown the same year at the San Francisco Museum of Art in an exhibition organized by its then-contemporary art curator, Suzanne Foley. More than anyone else, it was Foley who helped to establish the national fame of Bay Area artists, including Hudson, by supporting their work through exhibitions and acquisitions right in their hometown.

The porcelain sculptures here are mostly small, but their complicated forms must be extremely difficult to cast precisely, put together correctly and fire without mishap. They share some characteristics with Hudson's more typical assemblages (especially the polychrome finishes), but given the medium -- and the influence of Shaw -- they often refer to the vessel tradition of functional ceramics, with many incorporating vases, ewers or bottles. In "Blue Rabbit," for example, a chalice with a crenelated bowl is paired with a brightly glazed rabbit figurine, while "Full Moon Bottle" resembles a puzzle jug. Even more straightforward are the elaborate vases "Wing Jar" and "Manuel's Cigar Jar" (the latter pays homage to Manuel Neri, one of Hudson's teachers and mentors at SFAI; more about him later).

Interspersed among the sculptures are Hudson's paintings on paper. With their crowded and ambiguous compositions and tremendous color effects, these abstract paintings are marvelous. Not surprisingly, they are closely akin to the painted canvas the artist used in "Blue Redtail Hawk."

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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