The Arvada Center Takes a Fresh Look at Colorado's Ties to Pop Art

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Collin Parson, the exhibition manager and curator at the Arvada Center, always seems to come up with shows that both highlight the local scene and push the art dialogue of the community forward. That’s certainly the case with rePOPulated: Contemporary Perspectives on Pop Art, an impressive two-part group show, along with a pair of related solos — all of which are nearing the ends of their runs.

Parson begins the show in the first gallery with some context, laying out art history in the form of period prints by some of the masters of pop art, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana. They are all intriguing, but more important, they provide the perfect setup for the contemporary art in the other five galleries on the lower level.

As far as I know, there was no pop art scene in Colorado in the ’60s. Rather, it began in the ’70s, when artists here began responding to pop art with either post-pop or neo-Dada work, not unlike the kind of thing Mark Mothersbaugh was doing around the same time — as revealed in his mammoth solo now on display at MCA Denver.

The Arvada Center show includes some of those locals, such as Floyd D. Tunson, who is represented by a quartet of strong works, three of which have never been exhibited before. Tunson’s work often concerns the political struggles of African-Americans like himself. This is beautifully conveyed in “Cream of Wheat: Politics of the ’90s,” a mixed-media painting based on the portrait of the black chef on the Cream of Wheat box. The main central image is surrounded by the repeated image of the chef in a smaller format; some of these smaller images were covered in white paint, subtly commenting on racism.

Tunson’s combination of a Warholian aesthetic combined with the “art of identity” links his work to that of Tony Ortega, who shows some really unexpected pieces. Like Tunson, Ortega explores his own heritage in this work. Several involve sight gags, like “Mexican Gothic,” a parody of the famous Grant Wood painting “American Gothic”; in his version, Ortega has replaced the man and woman from the original with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. He does the same kind of thing in “Three Che’s,” wherein the face of Elvis from a famous Warhol portrait has been replaced with that of Che Guevara. They are very funny and extremely well done.

Somewhat pithier in its intent is the work of Carlos Frésquez, who came out of the Chicano art movement in Denver but who for years has been transgressing its standards. Frésquez likes to juxtapose Mexican imagery with images associated with the U.S., as in “Viva Mexico,” an acrylic on panel. In this painting, an image of a Visa card has been altered to read “Viva,” while below it, the golden arches of McDonald’s are used to stand in for the “M” in the word “Mexico.” As with Tunson and Ortega, there’s a Warholian element to Frésquez’s work.

Warhol’s photo-based approach is clearly an important source of inspiration for most of the artists in this show. Nowhere is this clearer than in the great selection of pieces by Evan Colbert, whose work always looks fresh and new. Colbert’s pieces are often funny, like “Hello Dali,” which is made up of half-tone portraits of Dolly Parton, the Dalai Lama and Salvador Dalí; multiples of each are assembled into a grid. A similar approach is seen in the 24 separate lithographs that make up “Happy Stars,” with the main image in each based on the Carl’s Jr. logo of a smiling star.

Warhol, and pop art in general, aimed to conflate fine art with pop culture, particularly as it concerns commerce. Among the several strong pieces by Roland Bernier is “Sugar Daddy (money talks),” a mural in which relevant words are spelled out in raised letters but get camouflaged because the entire panel has been completely covered by photocopies of $100 bills. Words have long been a key compositional device for Bernier, whose illustrious career stretches back over fifty years.

Colin Livingston is also interested in the business side of art, having created a miniature store titled “The Big Idea”; it’s an installation in which pre-packaged paintings are hung from pegs, waiting to be purchased at the counter that runs in front. The packaging, interestingly enough, obscures most of the painting inside. Livingston has an incredible eye for mimicking the look of commercial art, and many of the elements he uses for signage, labeling and logos look absolutely legit and not like the ironic parodies that they are.

A different take on commerce is seen in Mark Penner-Howell’s enormous “One,” a mixed-media painting anchored by a Chinese-style cat that holds a panel covered in Chinese characters. On one side, cogs spin out over a field of a blown-up dollar bill; on the other side, the arms of an octopus cover a scene of two men talking. It’s apparent that Penner-Howell is concerned with U.S.-China economics.

Although I can’t comment on everything in such a large show, I do want to mention the unusual bar-code portraits with interactive components by Scott Blake. In “Barcode Marilyn Monroe,” for example, Blake has done a laser print on paper of Marilyn’s face, rendered in bar codes. Using a scanner, viewers can home in on a specific code, and on a nearby video monitor, a specific scene from a Marilyn Monroe movie will appear. There are also portraits of Warhol and of Bruce Lee with similar effects. They are really clever, and very unusual.

In the upper-level galleries at the top of the grand staircase is an important solo. Phil Bender: Phil Bender: Phil Bender lays out the various approaches taken by Denver’s pioneer of neo-Dada. Bender has mined the same idea for decades — assembling and arranging unaltered found objects — making for a tremendously coherent oeuvre

In this show, he shows off the various ways in which he employs a range of mundane objects familiar to everyone as his art materials. Conveniently, the titles of the pieces invariably identify what he’s used, which adds yet another level to the work, with the words and the objects conveying precisely the same things. In some cases, as with “Handmade Checker Boards,” he arranges the objects in a grid on the wall. In the case of “Brown Suitcases,” he stacks one on top of another, displaying the pile on a stand, while in “Yardsticks,” he lines up the measuring instruments vertically.

As ridiculously simple as Bender’s aesthetic formula is — annexing ready-mades and changing their context — it somehow nearly always works.

Beyond, in the Theater Gallery, is another interesting solo, Sean O’Meallie: Freeplay, which features mostly small works by this Colorado Springs-based artist. O’Meallie’s works are beautifully crafted, with some having the look of zany handmade toys. O’Meallie mines various everyday objects for his aesthetic influences; especially prevalent in this group are sliced bread and balloons. He first carves the shapes he desires out of blocks of wood, then meticulously decorates the resulting forms in toned-up shades of paint.

Many believe that the current era in contemporary art began with the pop artists of the ’60s. Parson has pretty much proven that fact: It’s clear from rePOPulated that the influence of the movement just continues to go on and on.

Through March 29 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org. 

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