Summer Vocations

Summer is typically the time for the art world to put up its collective feet and relax. But that hasn't been the case this year, when June and July have been chock-full of exciting and interesting art events. You'd think it was October already--ordinarily the high-water mark for art exhibitions.

More than anywhere else in town right now, save perhaps the Denver Art Museum, the four blocks of Wazee Street's gallery row are where viewers can count on seeing some of the finest art shows in the region. Among the best of these exhibits are two at 1/1 Gallery that are well worth the effort to fight those hordes of Rockies fans for a parking space.

Gallery director Bill Havu, a fixture on the contemporary art scene for the last couple of decades, has paired the compelling three-dimensional sculptural reliefs of John W. Ford: New Mixed Media Assemblages with the vaguely traditional two-dimensional work in Don Stinson: New Paintings of the Old West. Ford's work has been assigned mostly to the gallery's rambling front space, while Stinson's, with some notable exceptions, is on display in the more formal and conventional back room.

Though it has been inexplicably renamed for its first stop here in Denver at 1/1, this show is actually Ford's View Without Boundaries, which will later travel to other cities. The exhibit, whose reliefs combine collage and found objects, is meant to survey the artist's work of the last five years.

Ford, who was born in Nigeria in 1958, currently lives and works in Wisconsin. In between, he's bounced around quite a bit, mostly in the Midwest; he studied in Illinois and Missouri and has taught in his current home state at the University of Wisconsin and the prestigious Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. In 1992 he finally came West to teach painting at the University of Wyoming. The following year Ford had his Denver premiere in an exhibition that featured his work alongside that of legendary New Mexico printmaker Clinton Cline. That exhibit also was mounted at 1/1 Gallery. But the American West is hardly the most far-flung venue for Ford; he's also recently exhibited in Northern Ireland and Poland.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ford's pieces in the current 1/1 show is the way they occupy the margins between overtly opposing forms and styles. Though the works are three-dimensional, having been created with nails, lathe, wire, board, found objects and photographs, they appear at first to be two-dimensional paintings. And though many of the found objects and all of the photographs and collage elements look to be laden with narrative content, Ford assembles the separate parts of his wall reliefs into purely visual compositions. It's quite rare for an artist to strike a balance between the funk aesthetic and the crisp linear quality of nearly mathematical formal arrangements, as Ford does here.

Exemplifying all of these signature features is the fabulous piece "Two Shoes, No Feats," a 1995 mixed-media assemblage that, at more than six feet tall and eight feet wide, dwarfs and engulfs the viewer. Most of the surface of "Two Shoes, No Feats"--the title refers to a ratty pair of baby shoes ensconced in a wood-and-glass case--has been covered with a large blue-on-white print of a plotted land survey, which has been bracketed with vertical borders of dingy printed fabric on each side. An arch of nails has been used to support thin strips of painted and unpainted wood placed in either horizontal or vertical orientations. This rigid horizontal-vertical schematic is set against the arch and provides "Two Shoes, No Feats" with its principal visual device--a checkerboard that runs across the piece, pale green against the white paper ground.

The other reliefs in this show are all closely related to "Two Shoes, No Feats," though compared with this giant, some are extremely small. In between are the more typical mid-sized pieces, like a wonderful 1993 mixed-media assemblage called "Aint Bess" that's displayed in the gallery's kitchen. This earlier piece has a much simpler composition, with a ladder-like arrangement of weathered and painted wood strips, a pair of radio tubes and a photo on glass--which, as the title indicates, no doubt is not Bess. Unlike many of Ford's pieces here, "Aint Bess" acknowledges the pull of gravity. On top of a pair of fussy Victorian brackets is a wooden strip that runs the length of the piece and seems to be bowed under the imaginary--or is that visual?--weight of the composition. Regardless of whether Ford works on mural-sized pieces, miniatures or the array of sizes in between, his pieces are always intriguing.

Stinson's paintings wouldn't seem to make an easy fit with Ford's assemblages. But somehow--perhaps because both artists are attracted to a subtle palette--their work winds up being quite complementary. In fact, this is the second time in the past two years that director Havu has put the two artists together. The first time was last summer, when Ford and Stinson were chosen to represent 1/1 at the Arvada Center's Gathering of Galleries, a showcase for some of the area's finest talents. As a result of that show, Ford and Stinson met, became fast friends, and came up with the idea of showing together this year.

Stinson, who studied at Colorado State University before going on to Tufts University and the art school of the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts, has made a reputation for himself with contemporary takes on the tradition of Western landscape paintings. Stinson's signature is to create a landscape in an attenuated horizontal shape, then present it in a beautiful handcrafted frame of luxurious cherry or padauk wood. Like all Western landscapes, these paintings are dominated by the mountains and sky. But Stinson adds an element that traditional painters of the landscape usually leave out--the mostly negative impact of society. Though at times the evidence of civilization in the wilderness can be picturesque, Stinson more often chooses to include in his paintings those things that literally spoil the view--drive-in movie theaters, trailers and, lately, abandoned gas stations.

In the 1996 oil on board "Cisco Air Stream," the shiny aluminum trailer of the title shares the foreground with a satellite dish. In the background, we get a long view of the mountains and the cloud-streaked sky. Stylistically, Stinson looks to photorealism, but rather than adopting that style's smooth and seamless surface, he gives his work a very dauby and expressive finish. Another Stinson painting capturing an isolated home in the mountains is the 1996 "Pink Trailer," another oil on board. A tumbledown two-tone 1950s trailer--outfitted with a gable roof, no less--is depicted on a hillside under a bright sky of clear blue with a huge billowing cloud coming over the horizon.

In addition to these wonderful paintings are a group of small Stinson collages that take a distinctly different view of the landscape. Instead of employing modest homesteads and abandoned buildings to express the presence of humanity, Stinson uses the human figure itself in works that obviously were inspired by plays on words. In "Continental Divide," a perfectly rendered pencil drawing of a nude man's backside is placed on a map of the Rockies at the Canada/U.S. border. The same ideas inform "Foothills," where Stinson has put a drawing of feet together with a map of Boulder County.

Stinson's use of the Western landscape as social commentary constitutes a virtual school among the region's artists, especially painters and photographers. This summer's under-attended blockbuster The Real West, currently showing at the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum, presents work by many of them (Stinson not included). But the time is long past due for a proper museum survey of the movement.

John W. Ford: New Mixed Media Assemblages and Don Stinson: New Paintings of the Old West, through July 27 at 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee Street, 298-9284.

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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