Action Pictures

Many art forms, such as literature and drama, have long used narrative to convey their stories, but the visual arts, for the most part, don't have to: Paintings and sculptures only need to look good -- or at least be interesting.

It's easy to understand the appeal of the purely visual over the visual narrative, both for artists and for viewers: There's no ideological content to interfere with the visual experience. Artists have embraced non-narrative styles such as abstraction throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but when postmodernism became established two decades ago, it prompted an increased interest in narrative art. Initially it was narrative conceptual art, but eventually postmodernism also brought about the big return of realism in painting and sculpture, which is where we are now.

John Hull is among the finest contemporary realists in the region and is nationally recognized for his compelling narrative paintings. He's part of that generation of artists who came of age during the turn from modern to postmodern. As early as the 1980s, he established himself in the New York gallery scene. I didn't know his work then, but I've been following his career since he moved here from the East Coast in the mid-1990s to chair the art department at the University of Colorado at Denver. He's no longer chair, but he still teaches painting and drawing there.

Currently, Hull is the subject of a marvelous solo show, Pictures From Sonny's Place, at Denver's + Gallery. As usual, he has done a cycle of paintings that, taken together, could be called a painted novel. Looking at them in this way, it's not surprising to find out that Hull has also worked as a professional writer.

How Hull came up with the story behind the paintings in Pictures From Sonny's Place illustrates how he constructs his overall narratives. He uses actual locations, people and events in the news and in movies to come up with the stories. But what happens with the places, people and events is completely fictional.

The spark of inspiration for these paintings was a junkyard, "Sonny's Place," near Sheridan, Wyoming, that Hull had come across while visiting the nearby Ucross Foundation, where he would later have a residency. However, since the story is fictional, some of them are based on locations in Colorado or New Mexico masquerading as the immediate area surrounding the Wyoming junkyard.

The main characters in the drama are also masquerading as something they are not: In the paintings, the people are drug dealers, but in reality, they are based on members of Hull's family and his friends, who, presumably, are not. The old man, Sonny, is based on Hull's memories of his deceased grandfather; the young man, Sonny's son, is modeled on an old friend of Hull's from his days in the U. S. Marine Corps; the kid is Hull's own son, Isaac. The name Isaac shows up in several of the paintings, especially on the license plates of the wrecked cars.

The junkyard and its inhabitants play out a drama about a drug war in the sticks. The narrative comes out of a report Hull read in The Pueblo Chieftain about the inadequacy of policing in the rural West -- in particular, the problems with the highly competitive methamphetamine trade. He combined this news item with his recollections of the 1950s B-movie Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum. In Hull's imagined reality, the junkyard is a center for the local drug trade, though we don't see any real evidence of this in the paintings except in the characters' dissipated appearance.

Although there are women depicted in several of the paintings, Sonny's Place reflects a world dominated by men. There are lots of cars and many guns, which, as I don't need to tell you, are two mainstays of the macho crowd. This is not unexpected from Hull, who is most comfortable when taking this kind of view.

The paintings have not been arranged chronologically in terms of when Hull painted them, but that's okay, because the story he's laid out can be told in several different ways and still come out the same at the end. Most simply reveal the everyday life of the junkyard, such as "Family Reserve," the first painting to the left of the gallery's entrance, in which the three key men -- Sonny, his son and his grandson -- are shown hanging out. The grandson is cocking a pistol while Sonny and his son look on from behind.

One of Hull's specialties is composition. In this painting, a dynamic diagonal running from the bottom right to the center left leads the viewer directly to the figures who occupy the middle. There's a similar thing going on in "A Picture From Life's Other Side," but this time the diagonal, created by the course of the road and the shadow of an upturned vehicle, directs the viewer to the left side, where the son is seen carrying a box spring on his back. His pose, with his arms outstretched, is reminiscent of Christ on the cross, which is not as outlandish as it sounds, considering that the son later suffers for the sins of his own world.