Michael McClung and Warren Campbell — the Michael and Warren behind Michael Warren Contemporary — have done a good job of introducing Denver audiences to Colorado artists who live and work outside the metro area, especially those from the Western Slope. An excellent example is the current exhibit, Chasing Dragons: Works by Robert Brinker, which showcases the latest pieces by a highly regarded Aspen artist.
Robert Brinker is best known for his linear abstractions. The layered compositions of those paintings and collages introduces the illusion of three-dimensionality, with different-colored arrangements of shapes appearing to occupy different levels of imagined space that step back from the picture plane. But the works on display at Michael Warren are a distinct departure from those previous efforts, most obviously because they concern representational imagery. Each piece has two: One, conveyed by the overall shape, is a Chinese-style dragon; the other is a collage of images sourced from racy cheesecake magazines or album covers or other kinds of mass-printed photos.
The origin of these dragons goes back to 2007, when Brinker participated in an exhibition in Beijing sponsored by Alfred University, where he displayed pieces that employed the traditional Chinese folk-art method of paper-cutting. In that craft, which dates back centuries, a piece of paper is cut so that when the artisan is finished, the paper takes on some kind of shape. Brinker had already been collecting Chinese examples of the art form, gathering up depictions of flowers, warriors, vases and dragons. For his own first efforts, he used the familiar chrysanthemum form. Brinker introduced something new to the medium, however; the paper he used was not a blank sheet — the classic Chinese material — but instead sheets from old magazines. At times he appropriated pornographic photos — but he cut away many of the most X-rated parts of the pictures through the piercings that are a consequence of the paper-cutting process.
The new dragons at Michael Warren are elaborately shaped, and the pieces made even more visually complex by the density and color of the found imagery that covers them. This leads to an interesting dichotomy: At first the dragon comes into view, and it’s only after you look more carefully that the adult subject matter emerges. The magazine pages that Brinker decorates with the dragon cuts are necessarily small, so after making the cut-paper dragons, he has them scanned and enlarged and then printed onto sheets of high-quality paper. To create the finished pieces, Brinker cuts the dragons out from the sheets of paper on which they’ve been printed, and then mounts them so that they stand out from either a background sheet or, in the case of the largest works, the wall itself.
This mashup of charming Chinese traditions and the lowest of America’s lowbrow excesses creates a striking combination — and what's definitely an original approach. Also interesting is the way Brinker's pieces turn the typical relationship between contemporary Chinese and American art upside down. It can be argued that contemporary art being done in China marks a continuation of ideas that initially came out of American sources — but Brinker’s porno-dragons return the favor.
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Chasing Dragons runs through October 22 at Michael Warren Contemporary, 760 Santa Fe Drive. Call 303-635-6255 or go to michaelwarrencontemporary.com for more information.