Rare Sightings

Denver artist Jeff Starr became famous locally in the '80s, but in the late '90s, he took a powder and disappeared. Last year he made a big comeback when his work was selected for the 2003 biennial at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. Artists step in and out of the exhibition world at will, but what made Starr's re-emergence so unusual was that he changed his medium during his hiatus.

How he went from painting to sculpture is the topic of Jeff Starr: A Way of Life, now at Rule Gallery. The striking exhibit pairs the paintings Starr did a decade ago with the ceramics he's done in the past couple of years.

Starr learned ceramics the same way he learned to paint -- with only a little technical training. A quick study, Starr spent just one semester in college before launching his impressive painting career. Similarly, he took only a few ceramics classes as preparation for his successful foray into sculpture. In both cases, he taught himself the necessary skills with breathtaking ease.

Born in 1956 at Fort Dix, in New Jersey -- his dad was in the United States Air Force -- Starr moved with his family to Littleton in 1973. In 1978 he began to get serious about being an artist and spent that one semester at the University of Colorado at Denver. "Basically, it's how I've always operated. I'll take one class and just get enough to figure it out," he says. Starr wound up at UCD because he wanted to work with John Fudge, whose work he'd seen in a show at the Denver Art Museum. "He was very good," he says of the late artist/instructor. "Very systematic about how you put together a painting and about how to apply paint -- just what I needed, with nothing theoretical."

Starr's first mature paintings were allegorical depictions of his own struggles. "Doing self-portraits was out of necessity. I started not finding stuff to paint, so I became this persona," he says.

Starr established his name through private sales, but he did not exhibit in galleries until 1980, when he lucked out and was selected for the Colorado annual at the DAM. I daresay few young artists can claim that their work was first publicly exhibited at an art museum.

Having his work at the DAM gave Starr instant art-world status and led to his representation by the Sebastian-Moore Gallery, the flagship venue of the time. In the next few years, he went through a series of dealers before winding up at what was then called Payton-Rule in 1988. Despite this ongoing relationship with one of the city's top galleries, Starr kept a low profile, and his last solo at Rule was in 1996.

"Painting got more and more difficult, and I got to the point where I was investing too much in it," Starr explains. "It was nice to go to a different medium, where I didn't have as much of the self-critical facility to impede me. It was so brand-new. It was pleasurable, the way painting was when I started. I recommend changing mediums to all artists."

The show is not arranged to give the viewer a direct guide to Starr's development from painter to sculptor, but the point is made in several ways. There are the early sculptures that led to the paintings, the paintings themselves, and the more recent sculptures that came out of the paintings.

On a stand along the west wall are a large group of his "Inclusions," the earliest three-dimensional pieces, which are made of Sculpey Clay encased in cast acrylic. The acrylic was used to preserve the forms, which otherwise would be constantly malleable. Starr used these small sculptures as models for his paintings, placing them in imaginary environments. Examples of this type of work are "Deviant," from 1992, and "The Spiral," from 1997, both in oil on linen.

The ceramics steal the show, however. Some are organic abstractions, like the ones Starr showed at the MCA, while others are tight realist sculptures, like "Rustic Tableau," a luster-glazed rendition of a stump with a bag of money on it. Stumps and logs are used for several of the sculptures, with Starr explaining that his inspiration was classic cartoons, in which stumps are frequently used as props, typically with signs affixed to them. In fact, cartoon imagery is everywhere. There's "Silver Galleon," based on a sailing ship that looks like something out of "Prince Valiant," and "El Pato," which depicts a hobo duck that looks like vintage Disney. The form of "El Pato" is simplified, and it has a monumental quality that's enhanced by the rich brown luster glaze.

I know that with the holidays looming, everyone gets busier by the day -- but I urge you to make the effort to see Jeff Starr: A Way of Life at Rule.

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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