ARTIST CHALLENGES AND CONFRONTS
NOT EVERYONE’S GOING TO LIKE DÁREECE WALKER’S IN-YOUR-FACE DRAWINGS
“Force/Resistance” is the kind of audacious art exhibit that can get a museum in hot water. It doesn’t hold back for a second on its depiction of police brutality in America, with graphic images of cops pointing guns at kids’ heads, aiming bullets at innocent mothers, pummeling and pulling the hair of suspects who have already been restrained. The exhibit’s centerpiece, Dáreece Walker’s in-your-face drawings, impart a bold heroism on those who strike back at law enforcement. In one work, a man sits in a lawn chair casually smoking a cigarette. Behind him a police van
is a wreck in flames.
The scenes, covering the walls of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, will feel familiar to anyone who watches the news on cable television. The cops are faceless warriors and their victims, all of them, are black. They’re drawn loosely from recent stories of race-related violence that have played out in cities across the country in the wake of deadly police actions against African-Americans.
It’s a one-sided story for sure, the unbridled presentation of a single artist’s personal truth, and a young artist at that. Walker, who is from Colorado Springs, got his masters in fine arts just last year. But the work is raw, powerful and provocative in meaningful ways. It’s also something museum curators tend to avoid — unless they want to anger half their visitors, donors, board members and the people who give out public funding. Oh, and maybe the local riot squad.
But the arts center plunges bravely ahead and does what museums do best with this kind of material: It adds context. In this case, Walker’s drawings are paired with paintings by Floyd Tunson, one of the most established and respected artists in the Springs these days.
Tunson, who is a few generations older than Walker, has been working for years on pieces that touch on the same themes. His multimedia creations cover a lot of subject areas — by no means is all of his work about race — but he’s not afraid to connect skin color and violence in his visceral and often disturbing art.
Tunson works in a variety of media — paint, photography, sculpture and installation, though he is well-known for a series of portraits he did in the 1990s that feature, most notably, hyper-close-up faces of young black males, some of them innocent, wide-eyed adolescents. The title of the series, “Endangered,” says a lot about the predicament of this particular demographic in the present-day United States. Several of the portraits are included in “Force/Resistance.”
That fact that Tunson made his pictures decades ago lends extra credence to the work of Walker. It’s a smart curatorial move that keeps viewers from dismissing the younger artist as reactionary or alarmist, or as a simple chronicler of current events. Tunson’s work lays both a historical and art-historical groundwork that places Walker in a line of serious artists who have something to say about the subject.
Walker benefits in multiple ways from the pairing. He is a newcomer, and his work is the kind that critics and curators sometimes (wrongly) fail to see. His acrylic-on-vinyl drawings here are straight-forward, comicinfluenced, and dripping in blood. They are direct and representational in an era when abstract art rules the game. Unframed and simply tacked to the wall as they are at the arts center, they lack the polish that would get Walker representation at most galleries.
But they tell compelling stories in the way many public murals do, using line and shadow rather than detail and color. They appear simple, but can be complicated in ways that are both sly and direct. One piece in the exhibit is a Diego Rivera-style narrative titled “Ferguson to Baltimore” that melds together scenes of violence across both time and geography. It is a whopping 25 feet long; in the center is a black male laid out in a casket.
As for the museum’s bold move, it comes at an interesting time. Last year, the fine arts center — a gem of an institution that served its community as an independent, nonprofit for 80 years — handed itself over to its nextdoor neighbor Colorado College, which has its own art program. It was a desperate move brought on by the fact that the center was deeply in debt. The merger saved it from ruin.
The change of ownership was trumpeted as good management, though it was suspect from the beginning. Colorado Springs suffers a severe shortage of visual arts outlets — it needs more curatorial visions and voices, not fewer — and this really meant one was going away.
But this exhibit shows the upside of letting an academic institution take the reigns. Colleges are shielded from the ups and downs that cultural nonprofits face and can push boundaries. They don’t have to deal with the same kind of pressures from benefactors. They have a history of sheltering provocative ideas.
The fine arts center has always been top-notch, scholarly, excellent in nearly every way. But it was not a place known for this kind of artistic fearlessness. Who could blame it, down there in conservative Colorado Springs?
The hand-over isn’t quite complete, but Rebecca Tucker, who teaches at Colorado College, assumed the role of museum director in September, and Jessica Hunter-Larsen, who curated “Force/Resistance,” came on board “to develop innovative approaches to curating, and to build educational connections between the museum, the community and the campus,” as a press release promised at the time.
So, essentially, the new guard is in charge and, apparently, it means business. “Force/Resistance” works toward all those ambitious goals, and fast.
That’s good news for the museum, for Colorado Springs, and for art in all of Colorado.
Dáreece Walker’s 2015 “Police Cross Lines 4” (acrylic on vinyl, 38 by 54 inches) is part of the exhibit “Force/Resistance.”
Floyd Tunson’s “Endangered 8” (acrylic on canvas, 60 by 48 inches) was painted in 1995.
“Police Cross Lines 8” by Dáreece Walker is part of the exhibit “Force/Resistance” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
Dáreece Walker’s 2015 “Police Cross Lines 4” recounts current events in urban America (acrylic on vinyl, 38 by 54 inches).