The five full-blown solos now on display at Robischon Gallery cover quite a bit of aesthetic and conceptual ground, but a thread of Americana runs through them. While this Americanism is not political, the way the artists tap into their subjects gives them a historical, cultural and sometimes civic gloss.
The festivities begin with Tom Judd: Disruption, a large selection of retro representational paintings by the Philadelphia-based artist, who’s originally from Utah. The paintings look antique, with matte surfaces that appear very dry, but all kinds of things are going on in them that tell the viewer they represent new ways of approaching-old fashioned imagery. In “Absolved,” for example, Judd’s depiction of a volcano has a very nineteenth-century look, a sensibility that’s undercut by the painting being splayed over multiple, various-sized panels that are actually book covers. “Absolved” is surrounded by more than a dozen little Judd paintings, most featuring appropriated old-timey figures set in front of Western landscapes. Some of these, such as “Jesus Smoking,” a cheesy chromolithograph in which Jesus is seen smoking a cigarette, are quite amusing.
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From the Judds, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the next solo, Jerry Kunkel: RECON TEXT, dedicated to another painter who looks back at familiar sources for inspiration. Kunkel spent thirty years teaching art at the University of Colorado Boulder; he retired a dozen years ago and moved to Lawrence, Kansas. A hyperrealist with an unusual taste in subject matter, Kunkel mines the history of art and the history of kitsch with equal rigor, sometimes bringing both together in the same painting. In “The Male Gaze With Squirrel Figurine,” for instance, Kunkel depicts with fanatical accuracy a mass-produced reproduction of an academic painting of an artist at his easel. Looking closely, you can see that the print has been rendered as if it were thumbtacked to a wall. Kunkel has embellished the scene in a number of ways; in addition to the squirrel in the foreground, the image the artist is painting has been replaced by a full-figure rendition of Popeye. Kunkel is also a master of trompe l’oeil, and you’d swear that his “Name Image, Say Word” is simply a chunk of knotty pine with the word “OKAY” stenciled across it in red instead of what it actually is: a meticulously painted facsimile of the board and painted word.
Kunkel’s soft spot for kitsch makes a nice segue to Edie Winograde: Place and Time: Reenactment Pageant, a show comprising color photos of historic reenactments. After all, what could be more kitsch than a bunch of middle-aged guys dressed up in costumes as they attempt to impersonate the cavalry on horseback or engineers driving old trains? Reenactments of historic milestones and battles are done around the country, but for this series, the Denver-based Winograde has focused on those held in the West. Her approach is not critical or ironic — not too much, anyway. Instead, she respects the sincerity of the efforts by presenting the various re-creations as she encounters them. These Winograde photos, all archival pigment prints, are pictorially rich and luxuriously carried out in vivid colors; their wide field of vision lends them a cinematic quality, as though they were film stills. Jacking up the sense of moving pictures are pieces that record movement, such as the action-movie-worthy “Decisive Battle of San Jacinto,” a restaging of the 1836 encounter in which Texas revolutionaries fought the Mexican army, a battle that led to the founding of the Texas Republic. The photo focuses solely on the men playing the revolutionaries charging across the simulated battlefield. “Meeting at Promontory Point” captures another cinematic moment, as two steam engines slowly inch toward each other to mark where the rail line from the East joined the one from the West to complete the first transcontinental rail line in Utah in 1869.
While it’s possible to link the Judd, Kunkel and Winograde solos, it’s a bigger leap to get to Terry Maker: Point Blank. It’s hard to say what these works are really about, but guns, and the implied American fascination with them, is a formal element in several. For these pieces, Maker has cast guns out of polyurethane foam and assembled the casts in a variety of ways. In one ball-shaped sculpture, foam rifle barrels radiate out from the center. In another, pistols are embedded into a ground made of rigid foam comprising casts of rifle barrels that converge in the middle. Both the pistol and the rifle used as masters for the molds have an Old West look, picking up one thin connecting line to Judd, Kunkel and Winograde. Maker also uses casts of little bombs that are kind of kitsch, creating another bridge to those artists. While the Makers don’t seem to be about gun control — not directly — they continue her longstanding interest in recasting ordinary things into extraordinary artworks.
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The last of the five, Jim Sanborn: Meridian, is coming from someplace else entirely — though there is an American connection with this Washington D.C.-based artist, who’s made a career of being preoccupied with the federal government. Sanborn’s initial national claim to fame was “Kryptos,” which he made for the grounds of CIA headquarters in the 1980s: a serpentine wall made from a thick sheet of copper pierced with letters that formed an indecipherable code. The installation at Robischon, “Meridian II,” is a direct heir to that piece and a slightly smaller sibling to “Meridian,” installed just a few blocks from the gallery outside of Union Station. These similar sculptures each comprise a bronze cylinder standing on its end, pierced with individual letters that form a text that’s difficult, if not impossible, to read; the cylinder is lighted internally so that the words are projected onto anything around it. At Union Station, this feature is only visible at night, and much of it is reflected onto the pavement, but at Robischon the riot of words sprays out from the column in all directions — onto the floor, ceiling and walls, making it a completely immersive experience.
One more thing links these five solos: curator Jennifer Doran, who made the inspired call to share the distinctive outings of the five artists simultaneously.
Tom Judd, Jerry Kunkel, Edie Winograde, Terry Maker and Jim Sanborn, through March 3 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.