Telltale Marks

The current exhibit at Metropolitan State College's Center for Visual Art is interesting, though decidedly odd. It's simply called Story, with no subtitle to help explain the idea behind it. This allowed its organizers, CVA director Jennifer Garner and assistant director Cicely Cullen, to build a group show connected only by the included artists' interest in narrative content or in telling stories through art. Because of this, you might think that magic realism would be the topic at hand, but instead the show is laden with expressionism and conceptualism.

The exhibit got its start when artist and Metro drawing professor Sandy Lane asked Garner if there was a slot this winter for a show by Brent Green, a visiting artist from Pennsylvania. Garner liked the idea, so she pushed back another planned offering to accommodate Green's time here in Denver.

Since the CVA is very large, with multiple exhibition spaces, Garner and Cullen knew they needed to add more artists. Keeping in mind that Green's work was narrative, each chose a prominent Colorado artist who was also interested in telling stories in his or her pieces. Garner tapped internationally known sculptor James Surls, while Cullen picked Denver's own Jill Hadley Hooper. All three do heterogeneous work in different styles with different mediums.

Hooper is a household name in Denver's contemporary scene and has played a prominent role for the past twenty years. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, she moved to Denver in the late 1980s and joined the Pirate artists' cooperative in the early 1990s. She went on to exhibit at the Rule, Grant and Judish galleries. Her current venue is Ironton, where she is a partner and serves as gallery director. But she is most famous as an illustrator, and examples of her pieces have appeared in many periodicals such as the New Yorker and the New York Times, not to mention Westword.

Several of Hooper's enigmatic paintings in Story were done over the past few years and have been shown before at Ironton and other places, but they still look fresh and new. Her signature style is utterly simple. She begins by laying on an abstract-expressionist monochrome ground in either light or bold colors. These grounds are composed of all-over brushstrokes that are meaty but subtle, owing to the neutral hues that Hooper employs. On top is a halftone image, like a detailed silhouette, depicting a person or an animal. The outlines of the subjects become the principal pictorial element, lending the works a heroic and monumental character. These qualities are contradicted both by the lyrical style of the renderings and the sometimes disturbing imagery that contributes an essential postmodern tension.

In "Man," the image of a dismembered man is splayed across the picture's vibrant red surface with his head positioned near the bottom and his legs near the top. The idea of a fallen hero is also seen in "Hidden," the only work specifically created for this show. Here the hero is the iconic American buffalo in its nickel pose, but the animal has been beheaded. Hooper's depictions of these tragedies are not visceral, but instead have an old-fashioned storybook quality that she has called "nostalgic."

There's also something nostalgic about Green, a self-taught artist who lives in rural Pennsylvania. He's only been seriously working as an artist for the last couple of years, and his drafting skills are extremely limited, resulting in a crude, amateurish style.

There are dozens of these bad drawings on the walls and on top of pedestals. To be frank about it, they look like nothing more than the kind of typical doodles kids do on the covers of their notebooks. From a certain standpoint, you could say that nearly anyone could have done these drawings. And then I noticed their obsessive underpinnings, the repetition of motifs used over and over but in different ways each time. I also realized that the drawings are just the first step toward Green's full-blown aesthetic ambitions, and I began to understand how such an unlikely character has become nationally prominent. Another step toward his ultimate goal is represented by an untitled, site-specific wall painting on the south side of the large rear gallery. The mural is carried out in black paint on the white wall and further embellished by ethereal animated shadow projections, which interact directly with the painted elements, creating an unreal effect.

Shadows with kinetic elements are the simplest of the animated techniques Green uses in Story. In the films — two run on monitors while a third and fourth are screened sequentially in a separate room — Green uses stop-action animation, supplemented in some cases by drawn animation. As with the drawings, Green has constructed a unique, surreal world made up of crude drawings, crude carvings and run-down rooms. They are distinct and compelling, despite — or perhaps because of — how strange they are.

It might be tempting to call Green a folk artist, except that in addition to drawing, painting and carving, he makes DVDs, which doesn't strike me as very folksy. Nor do his collaborations with cutting-edge rock bands seem all that homespun. On the other hand, with the ready availability of digital video cameras to a wide public, more and more self-trained artists who use high-tech methods and mediums could be seen as Internet-age folk artists, couldn't they? Talk about postmodern irony.

The last of the three artists in Story is James Surls, who became internationally famous in the 1980s for his carved-wood sculptures that suggest animal and plant shapes, but only vaguely and not in a literal way. Though Surls spent most of his career in Texas, he moved to Carbondale, near Aspen, a decade ago. Since then, he's become part of the Colorado scene, and his readily identifiable work has been exhibited in Denver and Boulder over the past several years.

There are three important Surls sculptures here, the most impressive of which is "Seven and Seven Flower," in painted steel and carved pine. Suspended from the ceiling on a central pivot point so that it looks as though it's floating in mid-air, the sculpture includes seven conventionalized flowers on metal stems, each of which has seven carved-wood petals. These radiating petals are made from pine logs that are pointed at the ends. Though "Seven and Seven Flower" is airy, with the piece enclosing lots of empty space between its solid elements, it still dominates the large room where it has been installed. Aesthetically, it's pure Surls, and therefore absolutely stunning.

I'd describe the huge drawing "I Never Knew" in the same way. Using a motif of pointed lines — just like the sculptures — Surls has drawn faces and arms that appear to be emerging from a swirling vortex of scribbled lines at the bottom center of the enormous sheet of paper. Hanging opposite the powerful and gigantic "Seven and Seven Flower," it holds its own.

I can definitely see why Garner and Cullen decided to put Hooper, Green and Surls together. However, as I went through the show, and as I recalled it later, it felt more like a trio of separate solos than a tight theme show. Luckily, the CVA has the capacity to allow each artist to stand alone in individual and clearly delineated spaces — and Garner and Cullen have the skills to install the exhibit intelligently. Seen in this way, as three stand-alone chapters, so to speak, Story is definitely a success.