ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The vibrant hues of Floyd D. Tunson sing and scream beneath the shadow of Ferguson, Mo.
When Blake Milteer took over as director and curator of American art at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center seven years ago, he discovered a 14-foot-wide abstraction ripe with vivid colors and gestural brushstrokes by Tunson.
Startled, he learned the artist lived in nearby Manitou Springs. The curator wanted to see more.
“I thought, ‘Wow, here’s an artist who’s been doing work since the late ’60s-early ’70s,” Milteer said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think that full spectrum has ever been done in a survey. I thought, ‘We have to do something.'”
A subsequent meeting evolved into “Floyd D. Tunson: Son of Pop,” a traveling exhibition opening at Albuquerque’s 516 ARTS on Saturday, Sept. 27. A solo show comprised of about 45 works, it spans four decades of Tunson’s painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking and mixed-media pieces.
Its focus is cultural identity, American social history, race and class relations, pop culture, art history and the beauty of pure abstraction. Tunson creates by discovering arresting imagery central to his ideas, orchestrating a visual whiplash of astonishing depth.
“They’re often ideas that keep you right in front of the work,” Milteer said.
Tunson’s “Endangered” series consists of beautifully rendered portraits of African-American youth, their faces ripe with vulnerability.
“First and foremost, these drive home to us that Floyd has every little bit and every tool he needs in terms of craftsmanship,” Milteer said. “He’s very realistic and very well-drafted.”
But the viewer has no idea who these young men are, much less their backgrounds. Are they middle-class kids from the suburbs?
“Or are they from an underrepresented country everybody would like to forget about?” Milteer asked. “They’re more about questions than answers.”
Tunson confronts racism directly with his “Universal Bunnies” series. The title derives from the racist term “jungle bunny,” which he applies to a refined recurring figure.
“Universal Bunnies Untitled 3” (2011) shows that figure draped in a stethoscope, the head replaced with a cartoon outline splayed with a close-up view of an African-American nose and lips.
“He’s using very pop-oriented imagery,” Milteer said. “It’s accessible, but that second half of the title takes it in a completely different direction. That’s the way stereotyping is coming into his work.”
The “Universal Bunny” is the common man, Tunson states in the exhibition catalog. He may be a doctor or someone sitting next to you having a cup of coffee.
“There are still folks for whom that is uncomfortable,” Milteer said.
The artist’s “Remix” series pairs racist cartoon imagery from the 1930s with copies of works by Matisse and Picasso. Elegant figures and still lifes anchor vibrant hues through energized compositions. Both modernists used African sculpture and masks as the impetus for shedding convention, propelling them toward the avant-garde.
In “Remix I” (2009), Tunson literally throws a Matisse on its side and centers it with a shockingly discordant, jarring cartoon lifted from the 1930s French “Tintin in the Congo” series, complete with exaggerated lips and bulging eyes.
“That’s where the story changes,” Milteer said. Matisse and Picasso “were among the first ever to look to other cultures. There’s a kind of colonialism that’s been cited about this work. These artists weren’t living among the cultures they appropriated. They were appropriating these images to their own high art purposes. So that bears a counterpoint to the low art comic book perspective of Tintin.”
The mammoth “Hearts and Minds” (1993-95) mixed-media installation spans 24 by 12 feet, encompassing guns, violence, race and death. Tunson has said it was inspired by spirals of violence: his brother was killed by the Denver police, gangs were exploding across the city, even trickling south into Colorado Springs.
At the time of the Colorado exhibition opening, the case of the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, blared across both the TV and the Internet.
Today it resonates with the current violence in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of an unarmed teenager. Skulls, skeletons, brains and used targets embellish the piece in a symphony of death.
“It doesn’t end,” Milteer said. “It hasn’t gone away. This is something that we’re very much living with.”