DENVER — Spending time with Floyd D. Tunson’s artwork feels like spending time with the artist himself. Each piece has the fullness of a life lived, vibrating with its own history, influences, desires, and jokes. His work feels thoroughly secure in itself. Its creation is somehow inevitable, natural; each piece more a mountain than a skyscraper.
Ascent is a 50-year survey of Tunson’s work, comprising over 70 pieces and spread over two locations in Colorado: RedLine Contemporary Art Center and the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Tunson is a multimedia artist born and raised in Denver and currently residing in Manitou Springs, a small community near Colorado Springs. Ascent features paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, photography, and installation works.
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“I’m a spiritual person,” he told Hyperallergic, “and I believe that when you are given gifts, if you don’t use them, you lose them.” The power of his capability is evident in his exquisite and careful sculpture “Keeper of the Secrets” (2014). With a fireplace screen, keys, tin cans, string, wire mesh, and other found objects, he builds an elaborate cabinet, its doors latched closed with an unlocked combination lock. Two wooden human figures with collaged faces of Black people, wearing tin can armor, stand at attention on either side of the cabinet.
The sculpture feels holy, the fireplace screens fan out like wings around the piece. The figures seem more like protectors than soldiers, but what they are protecting isn’t visible. The cabinet is empty. “Keeper of the Secrets” not only showcases Tunson’s facility with materials and the way he layers meaning upon meaning but explores concepts central to much of his work: the beauty of Black culture, the perception of Blackness in the United States, and the country’s ongoing racial injustice.
Tunson uses what is in and around him for inspiration: comics, news stories, memories, the natural world, and technology. “The work is just continuous with my life,” he said. But also at his core is a deep reverence for learning and exploration. He taught art at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs for 30 years and has been a reader and learner since childhood.
Growing up in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, he and his friends were frequent visitors to the Warren Branch Library. “The librarian was Mrs. Robinson. She was a Black librarian and turned us onto everything,” said Tunson. “When we went into that library, it was like a sanctuary, it was sacred. You didn’t go in there with no-nonsense. She didn’t put up with anything. That’s how I got exposed to Charles White and all the different other Black artists that existed in that time … we were so lucky to be able to check out those books, and she was reluctant to fine us when we were overdue. What a librarian. She was the best.”
There are numerous abstract pieces showcased in Ascent, most notably “Untitled 147” (2018), an astoundingly large painting (10 feet by 42 feet) that is all-encompassing, like the wind on the Western plains — forceful and spirited. In “Redlining” (2020), Tunson presents magnified natural textures — maybe the ocean, the earth — upon which he painted hard-edged rectangles, suggesting the conceptual absurdity of human-made boundaries.
“Racial/Facial Recognition” (2020), a large mixed-media painting, is placed near the entrance of RedLine. In the center of the work is a Black man’s nose and mouth — the same image that appears as the faces of the soldier-protectors in “Keeper of the Secrets.” The image is pixelated like a black-and-white newspaper photograph, and where the eyes should be there are instead two large, brightly colored targets; targets that have clearly been used because there are dozens of bullet holes. The painting’s figure wears the targets like glasses, but there is something forced about it — the glasses are too big, too heavy.
The title of the piece refers to the fact that facial recognition software notoriously misidentifies the faces of dark-skinned people. Layered on top of these concepts and meanings, there is a subversive power in using canvas, paper, paint — the analog world — to illuminate something so very 21st century. It seems to shrink time, and brings to mind one of James Baldwin’s statements about history in The Evidence of Things Not Seen: “History, I contend, is the present — we, with every breath we take, every move we make, are History — and what goes around, comes around.”
The poet Yusef Komunyakaa called Tunson a “master of visual satire” in his essay that accompanied a 2012 survey of the artist’s work. I see that mastery in the way Tunson titles pieces, for instance, “Where is Batman?” (2009), a crowded painting bursting with 1950s and ’60s pop culture figures — Krazy Cat, Ignatz Mouse, Wonder Woman, Superman, the grinning Speedy Alka-Seltzer mascot — yeah, but where is Batman? It’s evident in the side-eyed way Tunson looks at art history, for instance in “Remix G (Picasso Pastiche)” (2009), and in the pure delight of his many assemblages such as the “Synchro-Mesh” series from 2020.
I asked Tunson, “What do you think about humor? Does it have a role in your work?”
“I think humor has a role in my work, because my work is about my life, and in my life all the people I grew up with and surround myself with always had a great sense of humor. That’s probably imperative,” he said. “If you’re going to be a friend of mine, you probably have to have a great sense of humor. In dealing with some of these plights, sometimes you need to bring out that side, too. That’s part of it. There’s just some inside jokes that Black people have with themselves, and there’s just things that are best reflected with, like you say, a little side-eye and some humor.”
“Floyd,” I asked, “Is there anything that art cannot approach or say or do?”
“I don’t know what those limitations are,” he replied, “because I’m always striving to see what art can do and say that’s still relevant with what’s going on in our society. Sometimes you wish it wasn’t relevant because things would be better. Things I’ve done a long time ago seem to be still relevant today, and I wish they weren’t because we would be in a better place.”
Ascent continues at RedLine Contemporary Art Center (2350 Arapahoe Street, Denver, Colorado) through July 31 and at Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities (6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, Colorado) through August 28. The exhibitions were curated by Wylene Carol, Daisy McGowan, and Collin Parson.