Nothing Is Hiding

As you might imagine, I see a lot of art shows in the course of doing my job. I figure that since this time last year, I've seen something like 250 exhibits — not counting the informal efforts in restaurants and coffee shops that I encounter in everyday life. It may be an exaggeration to say that this puts me in a unique position, as there are surely at least a handful of others who see as much or more than I do, but it does give me a special perspective on the Mile High art scene and art scenes in general.

One thing I've noticed is that the quality of a presentation is independent of funding or facility size. There are well-financed and finely appointed places, like the Arvada Center, that almost never have anything worth seeing, and then there are marginally supported and minimally adequate spaces, such as the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Arts & Culture Center, where you can invariably count on being wowed.

What makes the Singer a reliable source of inspiration is its visionary director, Simon Zalkind, who demonstrates how one person with little help — and, thankfully, little interference from the Mizel's bureaucracy — can make a big contribution to the cultural life of a city. The Singer's fall season kicked off with a spectacular Komar and Melamid show, American Dreams, and now there's a worthy followup: Nothing Is Hiding, a solo devoted to William Stockman's paintings and drawings from the past two years.

A decade ago, Stockman was a household name among Denver artists, and just about everyone interested in the contemporary scene here considered him to be one of the most talented players around. But then he left town for a few years and had trouble getting by. Now he's back, and his efforts are just as poetically composed as ever.

Born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1965, Stockman came out west to study at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he received his BFA in 1989. From the start, he worked with representational imagery, though sometimes it was (and still is) hard to tell exactly what he was representing. This makes sense, because CU was a center for contemporary figuration at the time, with artists such as Frank Sampson, Ken Iwamasa, Jerry Kunkel and Kay Miller on the faculty. Miller, an expressionist, was particularly important to Stockman and clearly influenced his early work. But Stockman's mature work, which he began a dozen years ago, doesn't show that influence — leading me to observe that Miller apparently taught Stockman how not to paint.

Stockman moved to Denver and joined the Pirate art cooperative a few years later, in 1994. From there, his rise was meteoric. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that he went directly from the alternative space to the Denver Art Museum, since Dianne Vanderlip, founder of the museum's Modern and Contemporary department, actually bought a Stockman from Pirate! (Those were the days, eh?) Stockman left Pirate in 1997 and began exhibiting at some of the city's top galleries, including Grant, Rule and Ron Judish, as well as various institutions around the area.

In 2000, Stockman impetuously split town, moving to Philadelphia and then San Antonio before returning to Denver in 2002. This map-hopping had a serious impact on his art, and aside from a public commission for a painting at the Red Rocks Park visitors' center, he spent almost no time in the studio. "This wasn't a deliberate choice," he says, adding that he fell on hard times while he and his wife, Stephanie, were moving around. "Art sort of fell by the wayside while we were struggling to survive."

He got back on track in 2006 and began to produce the pieces currently on view in Nothing is Hiding. This newer work marks a shift in his approach, if not his subject matter: incongruous figures doing incomprehensible things. Previously, Stockman had laid out his drawings — enigmatic scenes often anchored by nudes — with little detail while fully fleshing out his paintings, old-masterish landscapes in dark, muted colors. For his newer work, the monumental paintings have been brought more closely in line with his signature drawings. In fact, each one is directly based on a specific drawing. In addition, Nothing Is Hiding also includes an entire exhibit's worth of the drawings themselves, though none that served as studies for these paintings.

The drawings are in the second half of the show, but it makes sense to talk about them first. Stockman, who draws every day, begins by making a mark or a smudge that suggests something, like a hand or a face. Then he starts to sketch, coming up with imagery that emerges as he goes along. That means the content of the finished drawing is surprising, even to him. "I feel like the drawings are more my own," he says. "I'm able to generate them spontaneously. The thing with drawings is, I have nothing invested in them. I can do them easily and move through things quickly." Though spontaneity is a big part of the process, Stockman also enlists people in photographic images, typically from newspapers, to serve as ad hoc models for the figures in his drawings. He transfers his selected images to the canvas in felt-tipped marker, which bleeds through as he builds up the first layers of paint and serves as a guide.

One cue to viewers that the paintings come from drawings is the light-colored grounds that have their obvious corollary in the white fields of the drawing paper. In each of the works on canvas, the palette is made up of just a few powdery shades, with a different set used for each. Stockman told me he struggles with color, but it looks like he wins these bouts. Although he doesn't believe it, his restraint shows that he is adept at orchestrating color schemes, because the limited palettes are perfectly balanced every time.

The backgrounds of light-colored fields accented by a handful of hues are essentially abstractions. Singer director Zalkind has likened this element to the efforts of twentieth-century modernists such as Clyfford Still and Cy Twombly, among others, and I can see what he means. But traditional American and European art is also important to Stockman. His elegant rendition of the human figure, nearly always placed in the foreground, especially recalls figural compositions by artists active in France in the nineteenth century.

Maybe that's why Stockman's pieces bring to my mind the famous nude drawings by Ingrés or, as in the magnificent "Archery Lesson," in which four archers are lined up across the painting, Puvis de Chavannes's allegorical works. This ultra-traditional and conscious reference to classic representational art of the grand order is offset completely by that abstract — not to mention painterly — handling of the background.

Another factor that plays a role in Stockman's pieces is the way he tentatively fills in the details of his pictures. This represents an additional level of abstraction wherein Stockman often crosses out or goes over parts of his images so that they're blurry and sometimes even vaporous. This covering over or erasing adds an enigmatic angle to his work, making it hard to tell what his pieces are about. "They're about mortality, human frailty and past relationships," notes Stockman, but he adds that since his method relies on automatism, there's no specific meaning there to begin with, nor does he wish to impart a specific narrative to any of them. However, there clearly are narrative aspects in Stockman's creations. He just won't, or perhaps can't, explain what they are.

This ambiguity of content gives the show's title, Nothing Is Hiding, coined by gallery director Zalkind, an ironic twist. But here's something I'll say in all sincerity: William Stockman's solo at Singer is a standout and a triumph in a Denver art season that's been filled with first-rate offerings.

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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