Review: Robischon and Walker Get Real With Artists Who Focus on Realism

Realism and its derivations are still hot properties in the fine arts, especially in contemporary painting, and this is a good time to immerse yourself in works of this type. Robischon Gallery is highlighting four artists, in separate shows, who are all doing work that riffs on realism. And that’s also what’s going on with the solo installed in the main space at Walker Fine Art.

Up front at Robischon is Christian Rex van Minnen: Golden Memes, featuring a group of recent paintings by this former Coloradan, who now lives in Brooklyn. The work is extremely unusual, with van Minnen depicting preposterous and unsettling scenes and figures that could never exist in reality; despite this, they’ve been rendered delicately and with a high level of realistic detailing. As a result, van Minnen makes the unreal seem real.

A case in point is the disturbing “VOC Jellyfish Fry,” which is a still life — sort of — that refers back to the work of the Dutch golden age (VOC is the acronym in Holland for the Dutch East India Company). An unlikely cast of elements are depicted and arranged as though they represent the bounty placed on a marble-top sideboard, the way people would set a buffet. But instead of the expected fruits and cheeses, there are translucent jellyfish blobs accented by beautifully painted renditions of Delft vases.
Closely related to this painting is “Google Gnostic,” which is even more visceral. The work shows what can only be described as slabs of flesh anchoring one end of the composition; holding down the other end is a deformed creature. But there are also whimsical moments in the picture, like the balloon tied into a knot that seems to float above the assembled bounty on display.

Another group of van Minnens are essentially portraits, but the sitters are freakishly deformed, such as the one in “Frat Albert,” whose swollen face seems to extrude from a mop of blond hair. Just as creepy is “Thunder Perfect Mind,” a full-figure view of a woman with a snake coming out of one of her eyes and a huge tattooed protrusion trussed up under her breasts.

In spite of the gross-out quality, it’s clear that the artist is a technical virtuoso and revels in depicting difficult-to-convey imagery such as condensation on glass or the look of pale dead flesh festooned with faded blue tattoos. It’s remarkable, even if it is downright stomach-turning.

Mastery of the paintbrush is also demonstrated in another of the solos at Robischon: Jerry Kunkel: Descriptors, which is made up of pop- and photo-realist-related paintings. Kunkel — a longtime Boulder artist now living in Lawrence, Kansas — is interested in looking at art history as well as the history of taste. In a painting such as “PBJ & Boucher,” he has created what looks like a diptych, though it’s a single canvas with a pair of compositions placed side by side. On the left is a staggeringly accurate rendition of a piece of wood with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich placed in the middle of it. On the right is a meticulous copy of a painting by François Boucher, an eighteenth-century Rococo painter, depicting a nude couple.
Juxtaposing something as mundane as a sandwich with something grand like the Boucher reveals Kunkel’s lifelong concern with tongue-in-cheek subject matter. A little different is “Huh? #1,” which features a kitschy knickknack of a kissing couple set in front of a super-artificial-looking paint-by-numbers landscape. Across the middle, in block letters, are the words “I really can’t stand your sweater.” In addition to these easel-sized paintings, Kunkel has created a series of tiny works that are each a foot square. In each, a beautifully painted picture provides the background for a slogan spelled out in block letters, as in “Huh? #1.”
Given the size of these Kunkel paintings and his use of words, there is a resemblance to book covers, but not as much as in the images on the small sculptures, most done in enamel-painted papier-mâché, that make up the third solo at Robischon, Jean Lowe: A More Beautiful You. These sculptures resemble books in their form and decoration, and they’re displayed on shelves, just as real books would be. But Lowe, who lives in California, doesn’t attempt to make convincing facsimiles of mass-produced books, since both her forms and her imagery embrace an expressive, hand-done quality. And when you read the titles of these imaginary tomes, especially in relation to the images she’s chosen, you’ll notice Lowe’s flair for humor, irony and sarcasm.

As a supplement to the three solos, Robischon has installed a small untitled display by Colorado artist Wes Hempel in the niche room in the back of the gallery. The paintings, in which traditional elements have been combined with current ones, are signature Hempel. In “Will You Have Me?,” for example, a portrait of a man and his dog done in the style of the seventeenth century has been combined with what seems like lines from a personal ad on the Internet, including this bon mot: “vulnerable and on my knees.” These works are quietly outrageous.
On the other side of downtown, at Walker Fine Art, is the eponymous solo Peter Illig, featuring a recent set of paintings by this longtime Colorado artist. Illig has not exhibited a new body of work for more than four years, so this show shouldn’t be missed.

The paintings here are about Illig’s life, at least broadly speaking, but as is usual for him, there’s a decidedly retro quality to them, and they appear to be set in a time before he was born. That’s partly because he often uses old found photos for inspiration. Though Illig also works with live models, even the pieces based on them seem to hark back to an earlier period.

The paintings are mostly monochromes, and many feature a main image coupled with a smaller, secondary one. In “Epistemology,” for instance, Illig has rendered in a grayish purple a man in a wide-lapel jacket and tie who appears to be feeling his way toward the viewer. He is unable to see because he is blindfolded. Illig told me that he saw the man as himself, trying to feel his way in the art world. Up in the right corner of the painting is a small rectangle in which there are depictions of three open books that appear to be tumbling to the ground. There are several other paintings with blindfolded figures, as well. Their existence adds an enigmatic quality to the portraits, and the idea that the subjects are sightless is an important narrative component.

Despite the fact that abstraction and even conceptualism were meant to supplant realism over a century ago, the realist ethos is still clearly relevant in the 21st century. It’s amazing when you think about it.

Van Minnen, Kunkel, Lowe and Hempel
Through March 7 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788,

Peter Illig
Through March 14 at Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue, #A, 303-355-8955,