While depiction of the human figure is as old as art itself, it’s also credible subject matter for contemporary artists, as seen in two current exhibits.
Gildar Gallery is showing Belle Epoque: William Stockman, with figurative paintings and drawings by the contemporary master whose signature style mixes sketchy and sometimes minimal depictions of the figure, as well as birds, plants and objects. William Stockman came west to attend the University of Colorado Boulder, where he earned a BFA in 1989. CU was a center for contemporary representational imagery at the time, and Stockman fit right in. After graduation, Stockman moved to Denver, where he joined Pirate in 1994, during one of the cooperative’s golden eras. In those days, artists would sometimes leap from Pirate directly to the big time. That happened to Stockman, whose work was acquired by the Denver Art Museum while he was still a member and DAM contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip purchased a piece right off the wall of Pirate. Except for a brief stint in Philadelphia between 2000 and 2002, Stockman has lived in Denver ever since.
The move back from the East Coast led Stockman to focus more on making a living than on his art for a while, but he eventually returned to the studio in 2006. By then, his style had changed: In his early works, there was a strict division in approach between his paintings and his drawings, but now they are much more unified in sensibility. In the first phase of his career, Stockman’s paintings were densely composed and typically had deep palettes, while the drawings were spare with a few lines standing out from the white paper that served as their backgrounds. In his current work, the paintings seem to be essentially painted drawings; while a couple in the Gildar show are heavily worked, they are done in a different way than his earlier ones. “In essence, my paintings are really a kind of elaboration of drawing,” Stockman explains in his artist statement, “which is the thing that by temperament and natural ability I’m most suited to.”
A perfect example of Stockman’s painted-drawing approach is “The Flippity Floppity Young Man,” which sets the red outline of a man, dressed as a clown wearing striped pants and seeming to be holding a pen or stick of chalk, against a light-colored ground dominated by whites and light grays. Descending from the top is an amber wedge that appears to have automatist writing in it, or maybe just scribbles. Others of this type include the marvelous “Stoker” and “Acadia Postcard,” both in oil.
“Utopian Theory” is one of the more heavily painted works, made up of big blocks of expressionistically manipulated dark, nearly black paint, with red, blue, yellow and orange peeking through; it’s almost post-minimal, at least formally. The same is true for “Pictures and Shadows,” in which two white outlines of rectangles stand out against a painterly dark field. A tongue-in-check element of this painting is the set of lines below the smaller rectangle, calling to mind the Banksy self-destructing painting that got so much play on the Internet last year. These works are not as straightforwardly representational as the ones that incorporate figures or other recognizable things, but rely more on the expansive fields of color that have been enthusiastically painted, as they are in all-over abstractions.
The show also includes Stockman’s small drawings, which are related to the figural paintings in style but are more crowded and more intimate.
A different approach to contemporary figural painting is displayed in Morphogenesis, the Space show with Denver’s William Stoehr and Julia Sanders, an artist who now lives in Philadelphia. The two artists are both coming out of classic realist traditions that are almost post-impressionist in character. But each crosses the old-fashioned approach with some very expressionist handling of the pigments and the forms, which is more typically associated with abstraction than it is with representational painting.
Stoehr, who has exhibited his work internationally, is self-taught as an artist; he had a career as an engineer before retiring and devoting himself full-time to painting starting in 2004. He’s written that Willem de Kooning was a childhood influence, and the abstract master’s combo of expressionist brushwork and depictions of women is seen in Stoehr’s work.
All of the Stoehrs at Space are straight-on views of a woman’s face, rendered way over life-sized (though small by the artist’s standards) and standing out against a white ground; the women appear to be African-American, given their features and the use of browns and blacks. In the striking “No More Words 8,” a woman covers her mouth with her hands, the nails painted red, the only bright color the artist uses. Stoehr focuses on the psychological state of the sitters; anxiety and fear, along with hope, are among the moods they broadcast.
Filling the enormous main gallery is a selection of painterly figure studies, all of them female nudes, by Sanders. The artist grew up in the Denver area, left for the West Coast to attend the California College of the Arts, then moved to the East Coast to complete her BFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While at the PAFA, she studied chiaroscuro and the depiction of the figure. This is her second outing at Space; she exhibited at the gallery’s old location when she was just sixteen.
Much more than Stoehr’s work, Sanders’s style suggests a kind of historicism; I thought especially about the Ash Can painters of the early twentieth century. She sets her sketchy renditions of nudes in the center of her pictures and envelops them in wide swaths of thick paint. Sanders’s skill in figure studies is remarkable; she uses an economy of strokes to suggest the nudes, blurry figures done in pinks and corals. (Though Stoehr cited de Kooning as an influence, these Sanders paintings seem more closely related to his style.)
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Sanders’s paintings in this show, which are very closely interrelated, vary in size from miniatures — displayed in two handsome, wraparound installations — to easel-sized panels, and a couple of large-format paintings. They all have a lyrical subtlety, and probably because of the appeal of her subject, the female nude, they are much more viewer-friendly than Stoehr’s giant psychological portraits.
No matter their style, all three artists in these two shows prove that the figure as an artistic subject is more relevant than ever.
Belle Epoque: William Stockman, through February 9, Gildar Gallery, 82 South Broadway, 303-993-4474, gildargallery.com.
Morphogenesis, through February 16, Space Gallery, 400 Santa Fe Drive, 303-993-3321, spacegallery.org.