Visual Arts

Painter Cody Kuehl Reinterprets the Wild, Wild West

You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

“It’s pronounced ‘keel,’ like the keel of a boat, or to keel over and die,”  artist Cody Kuehl says of his name. But there's plenty of life in his colorful, contemporary Western acrylics currently hanging at WaterCourse Foods and Red Wolf Gallery.

The painter is originally from “the Loveland-Longmont area,” he says. "I went to school up in Greeley, but not for art.”  After college, Kuehl tried several jobs, ultimately landing on residential-care counseling; he didn’t get serious about showing his art  until he was in his late twenties. “I quit my job to pursue art right before the recession,” he says, laughing about the poor timing.

Still, Kuehl persevered and began showing his work at the now-defunct Gallery Underground in Fort Collins. “We had this neat little nook of contemporary artists in a town that’s known for being more straitlaced in its art style,” he remembers. "It was a great spot to sort of cut my teeth.”

Although Kuehl says he had a great response to his art, he “struggled with sales for a long time.” It wasn’t until moving to Denver in 2011, in fact, that “a flip switched,” the painter says, and people began buying his work. Before long, Kuehl was showing his work at Boxcar Gallery. Today that space is Red Wolf Gallery, and it's a contemporary arts incubator that Kuehl has managed with a friend for the better part of a year.

Kuehl also hangs his work at Gallery 1505, both I Heart Denver stores and MegaFauna, RiNo’s hip apparel and design shop. The artist’s striking, sometimes haunting, paintings have also appeared at the District Bistro, as well asJake’s Sports and Spirits.

The “Western stuff,” as Kuehl describes it, has been “the more popular of the bunch.” He notes that these pieces are “a little more mainstream” — in as much as any of his art can be described as mainstream. What Kuehl really loves about his Western work is the innate possibility in each piece: both the possibility to tell a full story with a single piece of art, and to start a conversation by leaving space for individual interpretation, too.

“There’s so much storytelling in the Western genre – in the myth and the story of the West – and there’s so much you can tell in one picture,” explains Kuehl. His painting “Flush,” for example, is “just a guy standing behind a table with some cards and a shot glass, reaching for a gun — there’s so much wrapped up in these one-image stories,” he says.

At the same time, Kuehl says he's  fascinated by “an over-glorification of the West,” as he puts it.  “It’s an amazing part of history, and so ingrained with who we are as a culture. But you have to question it,” Kuehl says. “Is this who we want to be still?” And so he’s trying to expand the notion of the Wild West: “Not just the bravado and the guns and the craziness, but also the humanity and the expanded scope of the story.” He also injects satire into his visual story-telling. 

Kuehl’s works come to life with vibrant colors and matte gouaches that pop over textured backgrounds.  “I used to paint the backgrounds with a paint brush,” he says. "But you could see the strokes, and it was different gradients of the same color.”  After exploring various methods, the painter landed on a more organic process, one that involves pouring acrylic mixed with water directly onto canvases to "get this geological, galactic effect," Kuehl says. "It’s actually more organic because the pigments are mixing based on the feat of gravity.” As far as Kuehl is concerned, the technique – which demands that the artist give up a degree of control – gives every finished piece “a more authentic feel.”

Take “Posse,” for example, the painting depicting three riders. “It’s a great example of opening up, and just painting,” Kuehl says. When he poured the background onto that particular canvas, the acrylic seeped in and promptly bubbled up. At first, Kuehl cringed; he was ready to toss the canvas and start over. “But when it dried,” he recalls, “the paint had stretched, and there was this dusty texture” that worked well for a Western rendering." 

In addition to his contemporary Western work, Kuehl also dabbles in pop surrealism. “I used to do a lot more of that,” he says. He also has some three-dimensional stuff in the works, and recently started a new refugee series in the surreal tradition. “It’s similar [to the Westerns], but in different ways,” he says. “It’s trying to tell a story you’ve heard before, but in a fresh way.”

For more of Kuehl’s work, follow the artist on Instagram
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Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase