This is a rare viewing experience: a show of artworks made by artists painting over other painters’ work. I know, sounds like a novelty stunt but it’s much more than that. Denver artist Doug Kacena, along with the help of Mike Wright, the director of Mike Wright Gallery in Denver, arranged to acquire paintings by twelve Colorado artists — highly respected and accomplished artists at that — who work in a representational style that is often called “contemporary realism.” The artists are all known for excellence in landscape, still-life, and portrait subjects. Even one of Colorado’s A-list artists, Don Stinson, graciously agreed to contribute a large drawing. Kacena himself is an abstract expressionist painter; his work (found in many art collections) does not contain recognizable subjects. Kacena’s own canvasses are characterized by bold, direct, painterly applications of thick impasto oil paint, often in black, white, and gray, with touches of color. It’s tempting to picture a huge divide between realist and abstract art, but at the end of the day, it’s still painting. The combination of these two styles seems unlikely and that’s where it gets (very) interesting.
Kacena took twelve paintings, one from each of the participating artists, and then gave one of his own abstract paintings to each of those artists to work over. At first it sounds like collaboration, which is not uncommon for artists, two working on an art work cooperatively. But in this case, a finished painting was to be painted over, changed, modified and made into something new, without any direction from the original artist. There is an unwritten law in the art world, and that is, you don’t paint over another artist’s painting. So with that rule smashed, the artists got busy. What resulted is nothing short of astonishing, and widely varied. For example, a realistic still-life by Robert Spooner has been drastically altered by Kacena’s bold white brushstrokes. Conversely, Jeff Legg paints a handsome still-life on top of one of Kacena’s abstract paintings. Amazingly, the two synthesize and it all works. Some of the paintings are severely transformed, others show much more caution.
The artists attempted to paint over the other artist’s work without completely obliterating the original. Partly this is out of respect for the original artist, but also trying to create a synthesis of the two styles. Some of the original will be forever lost but what will emerge as a result? The hope is, something visually exciting, walking a line between realism and expressionism. And they do: the paintings are full of terrific surprises. The original painting is shown next to the final hybrid in a small print adjacent to it so the viewer can compare.
Authorship of the works becomes problematic, but that doesn’t seem important. It is often jarring to view these paintings. Both viewer and artist have to be comfortable with unclear origins, processes, and whether such a work is actually finished. Knowing many artists and how they work, I find this a remarkable deflection of egos, and attainment of a level of trust. They surely could not have approached this project knowing that their art work would be “ruined” or negated but instead, transformed. The paintings are a kind of mash-up of two distinct styles. It fits well into our pluralistic art world, where every historical painting style co-exists simultaneously. Art is a big house and there’s room for these sorts of experiments. Furthermore, the boundary between realism and abstraction is an illusion, since both styles, fundamentally, have paint applied to a flat surface; they only differ by degrees. Doug Kacena must be commended for reaching out to artists so different from himself, and the other artists as well, for bringing a cooperative and friendly attitude. This reinforces my belief that diverse artists have more similarities than differences.
Supplementing the gallery experience is a short film being shown in a side room with interviews of the artists, and shows some of them at work in their studios. It is produced by David and Beverly Schler, and illuminates some of the behind-the-scenes workings of the project.
One comes away from the show having seen a completely original art experience. Each piece in the show invites close inspection and ultimately, reflection on how art processes function as an extension of human personality and perception.
Through January 21, 2017.
The artists: Doug Kacena, Ron Hicks, Quang Ho, Jill Soukup, Edward Aldrich, Ed Kucera, Terrie Lombardi, Don Stinson, Dave A. Santillanes, Mikael Olson, Jeff Legg, Robert Spooner and Kevin Weckbach.