Colorado Springs

Floyd D. Tunson, The Wrestlers, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84".

Floyd D. Tunson, The Wrestlers, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84".

Floyd D. Tunson

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Floyd D. Tunson, The Wrestlers, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 84".

Floyd D. Tunson works across a remarkable range of media, and he is successful to varying degrees in all of them, as this forty-year retrospective at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center made clear. With 110 works on view—just a small fraction of the prolific sixty-five-year-old artist’s massive output—the survey offered an explosion of ideas and emotions, unhindered by any single stylistic mode. Graceful assemblages and swirling abstractions stood as compelling counterpoints to the locally based African-American artist’s piercing sociopolitical commentary on race and class relations in the United States and abroad. One of many such juxtapositions could be seen in an early gallery where Soweto Matches, 1976, a group of oversize burned matchsticks bluntly standing in for apartheid’s destructive legacy, lies just a few feet away from Homage to Johns, 1986, in which Tunson pays tribute to Jasper Johns via a vibrant relief painting that references the telltale hash marks and numerical signs of America’s greatest living artist.

Though the title of this show, “Son of Pop,” may call to mind a primary set of art-historical forebears, Tunson’s practice is informed not only by such midcentury luminaries but also by later strains of political artmaking. For example, it is difficult to look at the blunt depiction in Black on Black, 1986—Tunson’s grotesque, caricature-like painting of a gun-and-knife fight—without being reminded of Leon Golub’s gritty realism or Robert Colescott’s sardonic satire. Unlike the practices of Kerry James Marshall or Radcliffe Bailey, however, among other younger contemporaries with whom Tunson’s work should be considered, the output of this longtime resident of Manitou Springs (a town adjacent to Colorado Springs) is virtually unknown beyond state lines. This fact baffles when standing in the presence of works such as Hearts and Minds, 1993–95, a monumental wall relief, rendered with arresting craftsmanship, that measures twelve by twenty-four feet. A biting response to the inner-city violence of the 1980s and early ’90s, the tightly integrated work comprises ten panels pieced together to evoke the multipart tableaux of a Renaissance altarpiece. Several components contain smaller divisions, framed black-and-white portraits of young African-American men interspersed with pop signifiers of urban violence and institutional control—guns, money, targets, jail bars, and skulls. Other standout works in the show include Before and After, a sketchy, almost cartoonish 1988 painting of Haitian leader types in formal military attire; and Raw Deal, 1992, an eight-foot-square mixed-media work on plywood, offering a stark view of a young black man (his head and neck loosely rendered in halftone dots) hanged with a noose made from an American flag, recalling—Lichtenstein aside—the Warholesque flag-wrapped Native American figures of Fritz Scholder.

Though at times Tunson’s work can seem overdetermined, it must also be remembered that his audience is broad and so the volume at which he transmits his art is calibrated accordingly. But no matter who’s listening, one thing is clear: An incredible life force propels this expansive career.

Kyle MacMillan