A few days ago, I got into an argument with a friend of mine, a woman in her 50s who, as a child, had spent summers in rural Mississippi. She remembers fondly her friendship with African-Americans who lived there, and remarked that she felt that she was almost one of them, completely accepted into their lives and families. I suggested that she was wrong, that blacks in the segregated South had to pretend and dissemble to conceal their real feelings. She said no, that's not the way it was -- and you weren't there, and you don't know.
Race. It's the most enduring, powerful, disquieting and difficult part of our American narrative. Whites and African-Americans, descendants of slave owners and descendants of slaves -- and, often, descendants of both -- locked in our dance, prisoners of our own device.
If, as an artist, you seek to deal with race and the American experience, then you better know what you're doing. You better have a deep and compassionate vision of this country, and extraordinary technical skills to express that vision. And you'd better be brave, because you'll probably fail.
Most artists understand that; that's why so few choose to engage that part of America.
But not Floyd Tunson. An African-American, born in 1947, working and teaching in Colorado Springs for many years, Tunson has created what may be the finest and most deeply serious works of art ever conceived in the Pikes Peak region. These are three very large-scale installations, all of which are currently on display in Tunson's one-man show, American Standard, at the Fine Arts Center.
The first piece, "Delta Installation," is a meditation upon the lives of blacks living in the Mississippi Delta. It takes up an entire gallery wall. To describe it as a "mixed media" piece is an understatement; Tunson employs light boxes, advertising ephemera, an old screen door, an empty box of Aunt Sally's Creole Pralines, an advertising cutout of a well-scrubbed young white couple, ca. 1958 (Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee, perhaps?), a 1940s Flit pump (Flit was a highly toxic fly killer). Doesn't sound like much? Then go look at it -- all of these disparate items combine to teach, to illuminate, to take us through that broken screen door into a world that we need to understand.
Next, "Hearts and Minds" is, like "Delta Installation," an overwhelmingly rich visual experience. Like Louis Recchia, Tunson has the rare ability to work in a very large scale, and to create order and harmony out of the most unlikely combinations of objects. But if the harmony of "Delta" is that of Joe Turner or Muddy Waters, the harmony of "Hearts and Minds" is that of Snoop Dogg or the Wu-Tang Clan. This is the story of young black men, adrift, angry and violent in urban America.
The installation is dominated by two recurring images: First, a young man's face, handsome, intelligent, inscrutable. And second, above him and around him are firearms. Carefully, precisely, Tunson has painted two enormous Colt Anaconda revolvers -- cold, gleaming, lethal. Other images and components -- skeletons, machine guns (crudely constructed of cardboard), plastic tubes suggesting prison bars, targets -- combine to tell a sad and familiar story. This isn't a subtle piece; it's insistent, demanding, confrontational. But it's also a beautiful work of art, harmonious and rhythmic, whose thematic structure, full of riffs, repetitions and samples, is musical rather than visual.
Tunson's third installation is, if anything, deeper and more powerful than its companions. Titled "Adrift: Haitian Dream Boats," it consists of a wall-sized painting of a Haitian man drowning in a vast, remorseless ocean, his face turned toward us. Before him is a jumbled, graceful assemblage of skeletal wooden forms -- they're boats, or rather the idea of boats. Formed of thin wooden strips, they could be sailing craft in the earliest stages of construction. If decked, if planked, if given a rudder, a mast, a sail -- one of them might actually sail, might actually carry the dreamer away to another land and another life. But they won't; instead, they bear mute witness to Haiti's unending tragedy. This installation, so beautiful and so sad, is, like Picasso's "Guernica," essentially apolitical. It shows the world as it is, and it's up to us whether we act upon that knowledge. Are we responsible? Complicit? Can we and should we do anything? We make our own decisions, but view "Adrift" at your peril. You will not go away unchanged.
Surprisingly -- or maybe not! -- Tunson can create light-filled, joyous works of art whose only purpose is to delight the viewer. One such piece, "Untitled 108," an enormous (7 feet by 15 feet) splashy abstract, is as sunny and untroubled as a summer garden in full bloom. It's a radiant, peaceful work, wonderfully alive and complex.
The Fine Arts Center, which for so many years paid little attention to local artists, deserves congratulations for mounting this show. Tunson, a modest man who taught a generation of students at Palmer High School, may well be one of the most distinguished American artists of his generation. If you contrast his work with that of, say, Cindy Sherman or Damien Hirst, two of the current darlings of the art world, their work looks arid, self-referential, preening and inconsequential. We're fortunate to have him among us.
And what does the man himself say about his work?
In an artist's statement for the show, Tunson puts it this way:
"Looking at life from one direction, I see the terror of chaos, man's inhumanity to man, mortality, and the unknown. From another direction, the human condition seems like a magnificent, orderly evolution of extraordinary beauty ... my work reflects my quest to comprehend and express these forces and their interconnectedness."
An exhibit of works by Floyd D. Tunson
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Through March 6