Colorado has two distinct camps of artists — and they are worlds apart.
There’s the representational crowd, painters and sculptors who are the heirs to the great Western painters past, and who make art that’s easy to look at and put it on display at high-priced places like Gallery 1261, Evergreen Fine Art and the annual events associated with Denver’s Stock Show.
Then there’s the contemporary group, the adventurous abstractionists, installationists and who-knows-whats, who make work that’s less predictable and show it at the forward-thinking museums and of-the-moment spots like Gildar Gallery and the David B. Smith gallery.
There’s some stylistic boundary-crossing, of course, but almost no commercial overlap. Buyers like what they like and it’s either one or the other. The social circles around art-making rarely intersect; artists from the different factions don’t even know each other for the most part.
Doug Kacena saw the gap and wanted build a bridge. He’s an abstract painter who reached across the divide, asking a dozen of the region’s top representational artists to give him an existing painting, which he could then paint over with his own brush, promising to create works that are sort of real and sort of not.
This, as you can imagine, was a challenge. Painters, especially good ones who have developed successful careers, are reluctant to simply give a painting over so someone else can deface it with his own vision of what art is.
And there’s considerable money involved. The art Kacena worked over for his show “Crossover” at the Mike Wright Gallery, was valued in the tens and tens of thousands. One overpainted painting by popular Denver realist Ron Hicks was probably worth $30,000 alone.
But, it turns out, even the most conservative and precise painters can be up for a little experimentation. So much so, in fact, that they started donating to the cause and asking in return for one of Kacena’s own abstract works, which they could then paint over themselves, adding a dose of representation.
All 24 pieces come together in “Crossover,” which is as much an event as it is an exhibit. These are big names in regional art and include top-sellers like Quang Ho, Jill Soukup, Don Stinson, David Santillanes, Terrie Lombardi and Ed Kucera — and it’s interesting to see their work through a new filter.
Kacena has taken great liberties with his brush, identifying key lines, shapes and blocks of color within his not-so-raw material and reinterpreting them with an emotional freedom. The careful meticulousness of realism is remade in the dramatic and bold strokes of abstraction. The unwavering flatness of the canvas, a barrier most realists accept, is obliterated by Kacena’s habit of layering paint on paint and allowing globs of it to build up across surfaces. Kacena covers up the originals to varying degrees, though always leaving just enough untouched so you can see his process.
Kacena instills a new understanding into some of the works, transforming them, not just physically — from something easy to interpret to something that is more personal and requires intellectual labor and imagination — but also emotionally.
The Hicks piece is a good example. It started as “Intimate Encounter,” Hick’s romantic depiction of well-dressed male and female figures, in tight embrace, with deeply intense expressions on their faces. Like a lot of Hicks’ work, it has a striking intimacy and immediacy.
But Kacena’s wild overpainting, in swirls, dabs, drips and lines that start and stop abruptly, turns it into something different. He obscures the elegant clothing and a good part of the faces, moving the piece from documentary to fragmented dream. The newly emerged work, “Redacted Memory,” shows the power abstractionists have to create mood without giving away all of the pictorial details.
This exchange goes both ways. Kacena adds just enough punch to Ed Kucera’s stoic portrait of “The Frontiersman” to turn it into his own time-and-space defying “The Traveler.” He turns Edward Aldrich’s king-of-the-plains, picture of a regal, brown “Bison” into a blob of a beast, turned upside down and captured in white, gray, pink, yellow, blue and red.
In turn, traditionalist Dave Santillanes paints over Kacena’s “Composite,” turning what was a murky mix of blues and grays into the sort of majestic mountain landscape he built his career on. Jill Soukup, maybe the most successful painter of horses in the state, paints one into Kacena’s mysterious “Retracted Loop.“
It’s a game of sorts — what can one artist see in another artist’s work and then enhance with just enough regard for the original. And like all games, there are winners and losers. Some works just lend themselves to reinterpretation, and some already feel complete and the interventions of the second artist seem off-point or invasive or just plain wrong.
Kacena’s efforts, by and large, are more interesting than those of the realists. He keeps an open mind, aiming to expand their ideas. They seem, too often, to simply be inserting themselves on top of his work. They each have their schtick, the subject matter or style that put them on the map and made them commercial successes, and they eagerly reach into their bags of tricks for this show.
Still, the skill level is extremely high across the board. There’s hardly a bad piece in this show, but there are different approaches that will appeal to, or maybe turn off, different crowds. Fans of realism will probably find it the most compelling; to them it’s a new and exciting concept. Folks who see a lot of contemporary art, on the other hand, are used to viewing marked-up versions of existing work (it’s a common tool in the abstractionists’ own collective bag of tricks) and may be less shocked by the project.
It’s worth seeing either way. The effort comes together as a cohesive exhibit in a way few group outings do. The remix is a bit of an overproduction — the whole thing was captured on video for a documentary — but it’s a solid through line and an effective unifier of some extremely varied subject matter. There’s a good lesson here in how to assemble a show.
There’s also a good lesson, or at least a reminder, about the way artists think about the power of oil paint. There’s been an argument going on for more than a century over the merits of representation and abstraction. “Crossover” doesn’t come close to settling it, but it’s an entertaining aside that points out what the concepts have in common.
“Crossover” continues through Jan. 14, at the Mike Wright Gallery, 1412 Wazee St. The show is free. More info at 303-590-9800 or mikewrightgallery.com.