The Wild, Wild West

When John Hull moved to Denver last year to become the head of the art department at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, the city didn't gain just another academic. It also netted itself an important artist, as shown in John Hull Narrative Paintings, Hull's regional debut exhibit at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

Hull was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1952. His father taught physics at Yale University, but the family soon moved to the rural northwest when Hull's father accepted a teaching job at Oregon State University. Growing up in Oregon, the only kind of fine art Hull was exposed to was the religious imagery of the Catholic Church, especially the crucifix. More important to Hull, though, was the limited mass media available in the area at the time. "The Catholic Church has an attachment to imagery and has supported many fine paintings," Hull says. "But the biggest influence on me as a kid were the covers of pulp novels for sale at the drugstore. I'm old enough to remember when paintings were done for book covers."

As a youngster, Hull wasn't seriously interested in art. He came to painting, which he today refers to as his "vocation" or "calling," much later. In fact, when Hull entered Yale as an undergraduate in 1971, he had no intention of becoming an artist: He wanted to pursue writing, and his declared major was English. After a year, however, Hull dropped out of Yale, gave up his student deferment and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

It's hard to overstate how out of step this move was with other Yale students. "To me it was a moral decision," he says. "I believed in our country, and I had a certain level of commitment to it, plus there was the good war our parents had served in." And he was also naively romantic, Hull says now.

Hull lucked out. Unlike many of his fellow leathernecks, he did not wind up in Vietnam, but on a ship in the Mediterranean. "One of our first ports of call was Venice. They let us out on the Piazza San Marco. With a couple of buddies, I went into the Doge's Palace and started looking at the paintings. My friends got bored and left, but I didn't. After I'd been there a while, a custodian, an old Italian man, approached me. He took me to his office in a corner of the basement and drew me a map to the other museums in Venice--the Academy, the Peggy Guggenheim house--and I went everywhere," remembers Hull. As he toured the many museums of Venice, he picked up postcards of his favorite paintings. Then, during his long months at sea, Hull copied the postcards and so produced his first drawings.

After leaving the Marines, Hull returned to Yale and completed his English degree. "I was one of only three Vietnam-era vets on the whole campus," he says ruefully. Then he moved on to graduate school at the University of Illinois to pursue painting. It was there that art historian Marcel Francesco exposed Hull to German expressionist Max Beckman, who remains an important inspiration. Hull also lists as influences Illinois painter C.W. Briggs, Rembrandt, "of course, Goya" and Frederic Remington, "who I had looked at even before I ever considered being an artist because his work was used on the covers of pulp novels."

Although Hull refers to his paintings as landscapes, they also include human figures--as you might guess from his list of artistic ancestors. It's this figural element that injects his work with the narrative content referred to in the exhibition's title. "I've always been a figurative painter," says Hull. And that was a characteristic that gave him trouble in graduate school in the late 1970s, when abstract or, alternately, photo-based works were the only things considered appropriate for contemporary painters. "Once a teacher in graduate school said to me, 'John, you're a modern guy--you have long hair, you wear jeans. Why don't you paint abstracts?' I said to him, 'I'd rather drive a truck.'"

In retrospect, Hull was backing the right horse. Since the 1980s, figural-style painting of various stripes has been one of the hottest trends in the fine arts, even for a time displacing the preeminence of abstraction. By the late '80s, Hull's work was being exhibited and collected nationally and he'd secured representation by Tatistcheff and Company, on tony West 57th Street in New York. Although the pieces in John Hull Narrative Paintings came straight from Hull's home studio in Arapahoe County, they're technically on loan from Tatistcheff.

The exhibit fills the three large north galleries on the lower level of the Arvada Center. The installation isn't ideal. Virginia Folkestad's fabulous Musical Chairs shares the lower level and intrudes on the Hull show in two ways. To complement Folkestad's piece, the approach to this level is dimly lit--a poor introduction to Hull's work. The rooms are bright enough inside the Hull show, but the whirring of electric motors, another Musical Chairs feature, can still be heard. There are other problems that can't be blamed on Folkestad. For example, the hanging is somewhat disorienting, with the oldest paintings installed in the last of the three rooms and the newest ones up front. And while paintings from the same series are usually assembled together, there are enough exceptions to completely disrupt any kind of cogent chronological flow. The best way to see this show is to start from the back and sort out the various series for yourself.