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Beautiful disaster



'Coco (Remix H)" crashes to a start with a flurry of form and color. Characters crowd the painting: Popeye, Spiderman, Superman. Curvy babes twist about, painted on top in a translucent layer.

It's bold, it's interesting, and it looks light-hearted and as effervescent as any Pop Art piece. But then another figure starts emerging in the puzzle. Below all the commotion, there's a bust of someone in a red shirt, with large, blank eyes, fat red lips and lumpy nodules that suggest hair. It's a caricature of an African boy, and just like that, the painting takes a sickening turn.

The boy is Coco, who comes from the notoriously racist 1931 comic Tintin in the Congo. Therein, Tintin, a heroic young Belgian reporter, encounters native Africans — including Coco, who befriends Tintin — depicted at best as foolish, simple or silly.

Like much of Floyd Tunson's oeuvre, "Coco" fuses discordant images to reveal a pressing social issue, a human tragedy.

The local artist's expansive career bridges 40 years and spans nearly every medium he could get his hands on: painting (both narrative and abstract), installation, assemblage, photography and sculpture. This symphony of sorts, nestled softly for so long in our own backyard, will now see a grand stage with the opening of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's Floyd D. Tunson: Son of Pop retrospective, the biggest of his career.

Orchestrated by museum director Blake Milteer, with help from curatorial assistant Joy Armstrong and Tunson himself, the show stretches beyond 90 pieces in number and is the longest project on which Milteer's worked to date.

And so much of it is based on stupid little cartoons that reflect a dark underswell of big problems.

Other paintings in the artist's Remix series pair Tintin's Congo adventures against modernist masterworks by the likes of Matisse and Picasso, who appropriated the African artifacts they found in museums for a new language in Western art. In "Remix I," Tunson copies a Matisse, turns it 90 degrees, and stamps a Tintin cartoon in the middle, the effect of which is not unlike finding your pristine piece of fruit turned rotten on the inside.

"It draws you in with the familiarity first," Tunson says, "the things we're comfortable with, things we know, things we've seen and probably had dialogue on, Matisses and Picassos, things that are on the high echelon and everybody's probably been exposed to, one way or another. And then it drops that little hint of something other than that going on."

It's a comment on borrowing — artistic colonialism, says Milteer. To Tunson, it's something of an "inside joke," but one in which heaviness lands in the same breath as the humor.

"It should be unsettling," Tunson says, "because it draws you in first and then it kind of hits you in the gut, a little bit."

Far and wide

It's hard to wrap your head around the 65-year-old's work. There's just so much to consider.

"Good. Good. That's a good thing for me," Tunson says in reply. "It's discovery for me, and processes that I love to discover and do. I love the processes. They're all challenging, and that's why I've pursued so many different areas. Because I get a little bored, stuck on one thing for too long. It's just my nature."

What he terms his "eclectic" approach is compounded by the fact that unlike a lot of other artists, Tunson doesn't have creative periods that start and end conclusively. He'll paint a large-scale realistic portrait, then move onto a series of works that are purely abstract.

Take that to the power of 40 years and you have a bear of a show to organize. But Milteer's been able to whittle the work down and organize the show chronologically, with a loose thematic grouping based on four of Tunson's large installations.

In one, the FAC has hung about two dozen skeletal wooden boats from the ceiling of its entryway corridor, gently ushering audiences down the hall and toward a large painting where boats lower and collect on the floor. It's part of Tunson's "Haitian Dream Boats" installation, a work chronicling those who fled Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship by water.

These works hail from Tunson's own coffers, as well as from the permanent collections of the FAC and the Denver Art Museum. Milteer hoped to obtain one 14-foot piece, a single canvas painting from Switzerland, but the shipping logistics made it prohibitive.

While he has shown often regionally — his last exhibit at the FAC was in 2005, and included just his work from the prior decade — Tunson's popped up only sporadically throughout the rest of the country. He actually has a solid following in Switzerland, a place to which he travels often. (His wife is from Delémont.) Collections-wise, he has works held by Kaiser Permanente and the Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, at the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design.

With hopes that the show will travel, and a catalog that includes an essay from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs alum who met Tunson back in the '70s, Son of Pop could prove a breakout exhibit.

"Floyd is clearly an artist who is at a point where he could see some significant recognition from elsewhere in the country," Milteer says. "And I think there's nothing better for our region, creatively, than when somebody else says, 'Oh, wow, I didn't know that kind of depth of idea and image was going on there.'

"And of course there's a lot going on, but it's hard for the rest of world to sense that."

Home on the range

Tunson grew up as one of 10 children in Denver, back when it was a "cow town." He came to Colorado Springs to teach art at Palmer High School in 1971, after having attended Adams State College. Soon he moved into the studio he now calls home, a retro-industrial space on the top floor of a shop building over Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs.

Thirty years in, the studio looks like a snapshot from a chic design website. It's huge and luminous. Air and light pour through the tall southern windows, filter through abundant green plants and fall on a mix of sleek furniture, packed bookshelves and artwork. Off the main room lies a series of smaller spaces, like a bedroom and bath, and another large room that comprises his studio. There's a lot going on, but it's tidy.

When the Indy visited a month back, he was still finishing pieces for the show. In step with his aforementioned unique working habits, he was revisiting themes from decades ago.

"My work is kind of cyclical," he says. "I'll be here 10 years and then 10 years later I'll be at the same place, but I'll be a different person. I will have accumulated different experiences and so forth to bring to those particular projects. So that's the way I move. I have certain things that I address over and over again because they basically are relevant to me or still in the theme of our country or the nature of things."

Racism, of course, is one such topic.

"My younger brother was shot in a park in Denver by the police, and I think that had a profound effect on how I feel about young black males," Tunson says. "But I don't think that's the only experience — it's also from news, individuals in my family and other families, and just being informed on the whole aspect of the black male in this society, young and old, actually."

Only so much has changed since his brother's death — and that's the point behind so many of his works. It's not that he wants to tread that ground over and over again, it's just that he can't ignore it.

"[Some in the art world] want you to be that black artist," he says. "They want you to deal with only those themes, I believe, that are germane to your situation or whatever. I'm not one to easily categorize or put into that particular ilk. And I don't just say this as discrimination of me as a black artist — I think it's just discrimination of me as a black person. I think that's just the way we are.

"Our society is still very racist. There's a lot of bigots out there. Everyone wants to pretend that everything is cool and we're all color-blind now, and it's not true. And it's not always overt, it's a lot of little covert things, or things that are subtle. I have my radar out all the time because I'm just sensitive to that. This society has made me sensitive to those issues."

Just ask Coco.

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