The Wild, Wild West

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The majority of the Narrative Paintings show consists of works from Hull's recent "Colorado Crime" series, some of which were completed just days before the exhibit opened in January. Although they fill the front room and most of the center, the "Crime" paintings have not been hung in any particular order. Still, the sixteen small landscape studies shown together in the front gallery offer a glimpse of Hull's methods. They record views he encountered on a car trip through southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, scenes that were later used as the settings for many of his larger paintings depicting crimes and unsavory behavior.

Hull's landscapes may have a photographic accuracy, but he doesn't use photos as studies for his paintings. "I'm just too nineteenth-century about it," he said during his gallery talk. "When I find a scene that's interesting to me, I stop and paint it. If everything goes right, it only takes about an hour to do a small study--but rarely does it go right.

"When I started the 'Colorado Crime' paintings, I hung these studies on one wall of my studio," he adds. "On the opposite wall I hung sketches I made of people--which I do all the time. The paintings are combinations of the studies and the sketches, which are combined in a variety of ways. It may not be too efficient, but it is effective."

One of the things that make the "Colorado Crime" paintings so compelling is the way Hull uses the majesty of the scenery to frame the ignoble activity that occurs in its midst. The compositions that result are more than a little unnerving. As paintings, these pieces are beautiful, but as narratives they're pretty ugly. The ironically titled "The Friends of Old Frank" is set in an isolated corner of the San Luis Valley, under a leaden, cloud-filled sky. The action, which takes place in the middle of the picture, is cast in heavy shadows. A kneeling man (presumably Old Frank) is about to be murdered by two gun-toting thugs who tower over him, their blue pickup just to the left. In "Side Street," two armed men, separated by a beat-up sedan, are about to confront one another, apparently over a woman.

While Hull's paintings look fairly traditional on one level, the violent and disturbing subjects he often chooses to paint give them a real edge. And like the Catholic works he saw as a child and again as a Marine in Venice, they're frequently charged with eroticism--even though women rarely appear in the paintings at the Arvada Center. That's because a recent series depicting intimate relationships between men and women wasn't included. "They're interiors, and this show's about the landscape," Hull explains. He plans to exhibit those paintings next year at the Emmanuel Gallery.

In the meantime, though, John Hull Narrative Paintings, which closes this weekend, serves as a fine introduction to a talent who's already a Colorado landmark.

John Hull Narrative Paintings, through April 3 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 303-431-3939.

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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