Jeff Starr: The Wrath of Grapes

When two different groups of people, one made up mostly of artists, the other comprising collectors and donors, began to separately brainstorm back in the 1990s about the creation of a new contemporary-art museum in Denver, one of the biggest motivating factors was the desire to showcase art made in Colorado. It wasn't that the institution would be solely dedicated to the region's artists, but it would give them a shot alongside national and international stars. Twelve years ago, the two camps merged and founded the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver.

Since then, the MCA has mostly kept to the letter of this law, if not its spirit. There have been major shows devoted to some of the best local artists, notably Decades/Remix, a group of exhibits presented last year in the old space in Sakura Square and other venues that surveyed the state's contemporary art from 1985 to the present. The multi-part exhibit put together by MCA director and curator Cydney Payton was one of the most interesting and important I've ever seen in Colorado. Payton selected more than a hundred artists, and though some may quibble with this choice or that, 75 of them would have made anyone's list. With the opening of the new David Adjaye-designed building, a book called "Decades/Remix" was released (available in the gift shop) that assembles images by all of the included artists, supplemented by biographic and stylistic information on each.

But when it was time to open that new building, not one of the seven debut exhibits, collectively titled Star Power, was given over to an artist from our community, and everybody noticed. It was a serious political error, but Payton has moved decisively to correct it by establishing an artist residency for home-state favorites. Each of the artists she selects will be given a solo. The plan is that there will always be an exhibit with a Colorado connection at the MCA. What a great idea.

The first of these, Jeff Starr: The Wrath of Grapes, is now in the Mary Caulkins and Karl Kister Project Gallery on the second floor. The title refers to a malapropism that Starr once overheard. The exhibit features recent paintings and ceramic sculptures by Starr, a well-known Denver artist, along with a fragment of his studio that is done as an installation.

I'm of two minds when it comes to studio facsimiles such as this. They are meant to give meaning to the idea of an artist-in-residence by referring to his or her everyday experience, and this pastiche does provide insight into Starr's creative process. For instance, there are photos of George Ohr pots and those by Beatrice Wood; two paintings by Starr's friend Matt O'Neill; a photo by Wes Kennedy; lots of books; and a tape player running a loop of old-time pop music from a radio show. But, as informative as it is, this jumble of furniture and objects prevents the Starr show from looking as good as it might have, which is why I wish the mélange wasn't eating up valuable gallery space.

Essentially self-taught, Starr broke onto the scene in the 1980s, a time when there was a lot of interest in contemporary art by Coloradans, much of it directed toward him. Born in New Jersey in 1956, Starr moved with his family to Littleton in 1973. Since childhood, he had wanted to be an artist, and there are selections of his juvenilia, including a group of scrapbooks filled with collages and drawings on the third floor, in The Idea Box. He briefly attended the University of Colorado at Denver, but only to take classes from the idiosyncratic representational painter John Fudge. This connection is interesting and provocative, and I've long wished someone would mount a show contrasting their work, because the teacher profoundly impacted the student.

Starr has often used different painting styles more or less simultaneously, but he's always representational, even when he renders abstract sculptures, such as the one in the studio installation, as his subjects. The paintings in the show illustrate this, even if all of them could be described as examples of conceptual realism. Stylistically, they fall into two basic categories: super-realistic, as in "The Actor (Lee Marvin)"; or fantasy-based, as in "Freedonia," a whimsical depiction of a storybook village. Given his interest in Hollywood, as revealed by the Marvin portrait, it might be assumed that the title "Freedonia" is a reference to the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, which is set in that imaginary place, but Starr says he was unaware of the association.

The paintings in the fantastical category are clearly the more significant of the two types, in that they indicate a new direction and new content for Starr. In "Freedonia," a cluster of ramshackle if picturesque houses caps the top of a steep outcropping. In the foreground, a car is seen rounding a bend, with a chic modernist house nearby. The colors, predominantly green and orange, are just right. And they are technically superb, as the paint has been perfectly applied and meticulously blended into the correct shade.

"Brokenborough," which has a brighter palette, is similar to "Freedonia," with structures covering a bizarre precipice. But Starr pushes the precarious narrative even further by having some elements sticking out of the side of the mountain, seemingly hanging by a thread.

Throughout his career, Starr has embraced surrealism, which was in a big-time revival when he entered the scene. And its influence is easy to see in these preposterous views of towns, landscapes and skies, but none makes the case more clearly than "We Lived Here," where the houses are in the trees. According to Starr's artist statement, there's a utopian quality to these depictions of preposterous human settlements, but they're actually more obviously dystopian.

Related to these are paintings of tree stumps that Starr has laden with symbolism. The conventionalized tree stump in "My Way," and the much simpler one in "Selective Memory," where an ax is also in the picture, are meant to suggest the idea of distress. Starr has written that he picked up the concept of having a stump suggest distress from nineteenth-century landscape painters, who used them for the same reason. Though Starr has said that his odd style of depicting the stumps comes right out of late medieval German art, there's also a lot of Warner Brothers in them.

The stump paintings provide a direct link to Starr's ceramic sculptures; in fact, "Hold Everything" actually is a stump. It turns out that despite his reputation as a painter, Starr turned his back on the medium from 2000 to 2005 and exclusively made ceramics. As with painting, Starr taught himself how to do it, with a class or two at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. And in a relatively short time, he became an expert at modeling, casting, firing and glazing. (An assortment of his earliest efforts in clay is displayed in the MCA library, on the first floor. The modest pieces, which date from 1990 or so, are conceptually related to his most recent ceramic sculptures.)

The most significant of the Starr ceramics is the bigger-than-life-sized bust "Wymond," a cartoonish and somewhat creepy portrait of a kid who used to work at Twist & Shout. The ceramic head is mounted onto a steel rod attached to a steel-plate base. "Wymond" has quite a visual punch and manages to look even stranger than Starr's other odd-looking portrait heads of young guys. He's smoothed out the clay surfaces of the subjects' face and hair, which makes them seem hard and unnatural. The otherworldliness is heightened by the vaguely naturalistic colors he uses and by the exaggeration of the subject's features, made more manifest by the large scale.

I'm happy Payton has established this Colorado-friendly program, and Jeff Starr: The Wrath of Grapes was a great choice for the inaugural show.

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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