Like the meaning of life, the cornerstone of Floyd D. Tunson: Janus — the UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art’s inaugural exhibition at the new Ent Center for the Arts — is almost too monumental to process. (It’s actually 12 smaller canvases arranged in a grid.) Stepping back (and back) only compels you to step closer (and closer).
“Floyd’s fearless,” says GOCA director and Janus curator Daisy McGowan of Untitled 147, one of eight new works here and his largest to date. Haitian Dream Boats and Untitled 143 hang elsewhere in the building.
McGowan calls Tunson one of the most influential contemporary artists in Colorado. “He’s not interested in sitting back, doing what he’s done in the past,” she says. “He reinvents the work he’s making continually. I believe he has a bottomless curiosity about existence through the making of art.”
But carting brushes and paint up a 10-foot ladder every day for about eight months just about killed Tunson. “When I started, I felt like maybe I bit off more than I can chew, you know,” he says of 147. “But it all came out.”
Floyd Tunson, 70, is used to just making things work. He’s done it all his life.
TUNSON IS TALL. The trademark head scarf that corrals his dreadlocks pirate style is black today. A gray athleisure zip-up and black pants complete a comfortable look that quietly says, “I don’t need to prove anything to anybody.”
“If you look up the word cool in the dictionary,” McGowan says, “I’m pretty sure there’s a picture of Floyd Tunson.”
He stands in his studio, one half of the cavernous main space where he has lived and worked for more than 40 years. Art and supplies claim space on the walls and parts of the floor. A pile of gallon milk jugs slumps against a table. Paint cups wait on stools to be discarded. A portrait of a toddler hangs near the door and a brutish monkey/monster/man across the room. In the middle, a sheet conceals an untouched 10-by-14-foot canvas, like an altar to The Possible.
“It’s such a mess,” Tunson says.
He’ll talk about growing up in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, although he sidesteps the grit of growing up black and poor in the ’50s and ’60s. He experienced discrimination-yes, of course. Violence. A younger brother was killed by police. The world told Tunson he was a zero, he’s said, and for a while, he believed it.
There were good things. A tightknit family of 10 kids loved him fiercely. And the notion, even at 5, of becoming an artist. Like his older brother, whom he idolized. That brother gave him watercolors. His sister brought him reams of typing paper from work. An old window shade was the canvas for his first oil.
“I would take anything,” he says. “Everyone would save me the cardboard (from a new shirt) because they knew, if they didn’t, I was going into the trash and retrieving it. That was special, to be able to draw or paint on a piece of cardboard.”
But joy isn’t enough to make a career. “I thought if you had skills and you pursued it, you could have a profession doing that. But that’s not necessarily true. As I found out.”
So in 1971, after a stint in the Army, Tunson began teaching art at Palmer High School. He’d get home around 3 p.m., nap for about four hours and make art until about 2 a.m.
“I was going to teach about five years and disappear. I’d go to New York City and be the big artist on the block,” he says. “But life didn’t allow me to do that. In retrospect, I have no regrets. I don’t think I’d have this body of work if I wasn’t here. Because I had such great support and not a lot of distractions. It’s such a dead place.”
He retired from teaching in 2000. Now, when he works into early morning, it’s because he wants to.
TUNSON SPEAKS a lot of languages: He’s grounded in painting, but his lexicon includes drawing, sculpture, printmaking, installation art and multimedia work. It’s representative or abstract, breathtakingly political or just breathtaking, confrontational, implicating or ennobling.
He rubs his thighs absentmindedly as he talks about his work on race.
“Yes, some of the works are tough,” he says, staring out his massive, arched windows, where Jurassic cacti strain for light. “As art should be. It’s not entertainment.”
If you saw Floyd D. Tunson: Son of Pop, the Fine Arts Center’s sprawling retrospective in 2012, you may remember some. Many are gut-punchers, litmus tests of your unspoken beliefs or dark mirrors of your experience. For instance, the Endangered series reveals meticulously rendered images of young black men on the cusp of (you fill in the blank). American flags choke brown male necks in the stark Raw Deal series. And grotesque caricatures of African men against masters-influenced backgrounds dominate the Remix series.
So, are you an activist?
He shakes his head, frowning. “I feel obligated and compelled to do that work. … But I’m not an activist. I’m not trying to be the voice for everyone. … I’m not trying to speak for every woe that goes on in the black community, because I can’t. I’m only one artist.”
As a break, he sometimes falls into abstraction, which is just as challenging, he says, but driven by solving visual problems. While Janus includes two multimedia works, the bulk are large-scale abstractions that play with duality: structure and flow, limits and freedom, perhaps even a past and future that only that two-faced Roman god can see.
“Looking at life from one direction, I see the terror of chaos, man’s inhumanity to man, mortality, and the vastness of the unknown,” he writes in his artist’s statement. “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.”
What form that will take is anyone’s guess. “Floyd’s going to make the art that he’s going to make,” McGowan says.
She laughs, remembering what Floyd Tunson recently told a young artist looking for career advice. “He said, ‘Get to work.'”
See For Yourself
Floyd D. Tunson: Janus remains on display through April 15 at UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art, the Ent Center for the Arts. galleryuccs.org
In the Spring print issue of this article, we incorrectly identified Floyd Tunson’s brothers and the details of his military service. A younger brother was killed by police, and while Tunson served in the Army, he was not deployed to Vietnam. This version of the article has been corrected accordingly. We regret the errors.