Every new body of work that an established artist produces comes with a story, and the paintings in Tracey Stuckey’s current exhibition, “Extranjero,” are no exception.
The narrative goes something like this: In August 2019, the artist, his wife and two children headed down to Mexico’s Baja California Sur where she, on a year’s sabbatical from her job, planned to complete a research project. They found a place to live, enrolled the kids in school and Tracey set about creating a series of paintings based on his experiences there.
As fate would have it, a global pandemic struck somewhere in the middle of this family adventure and the Stuckeys, following U.S. government advice at the time, headed home. The painter lost a direct connection to his subject matter but kept his determination, completing his Mexico-themed studies back in Colorado, where he has a studio and a very successful commercial career as a contemporary Western painter.
If you go
Tracey Stuckey’s “Extranjero: Recent Paintings From Mexico,” continues through March 6 at Visions West Contemporary, 2605 Walnut St. It’s free. Info at 303-292-0909 or visionswestcontemporary.com.
That might not be the most interesting or unique backstory. Certainly plenty of extranjeros (foreigners) had excursions to Mexico cut short due to COVD. But it does help to explain the 13 large, colorful, oil-on-canvas paintings now on display at Visions West Contemporary gallery in RiNo.
In some ways, it must be said, it excuses them. Stuckey’s complicated scenes of Mexican life are populated, on their surface, with south-of-the-border stereotypes that won’t sit well with everyone.
Men drunk on cheap beer. Women dressed as Frida Kahlo with crowns of flowers in their hair. Assorted mariachis, vaqueros, surfers in Volkswagen beetles, gringo tourists and, of course, a market that sells those masks worn by Lucha libre wrestlers.
A viewer has to wonder: If Stuckey’s trip abroad wasn’t abbreviated, would he have spent more time around the millions of real-deal, middle-class Mexican families whose lives aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the north? Might he have painted a Mexico where existence isn’t about cantinas and resorts but rather talking on cellphones, watching cable TV, calling Ubers, shopping at Walmart and saving for college?
In Stuckey’s defense (and not that he needs one; that probably would have been a little boring): Artists need to paint what they see in their heads, good or bad, and paint it with conviction if they want to be interesting. He does that here. Plus, there is a long history of talented artists playing up the exoticism of foreign locales at the expense of reality.
Plenty of Gauguin’s work in French Polynesia falls into that category. Rousseau’s jungle scenes, too, even though he never actually went to such places. Even some of Kahlo’s own self-portraits count in this regard: She wasn’t born into the traditional Mexican trappings she surrounds herself with visually; she adopted them as a sign of respect for her country’s past.
And Stuckey isn’t sticking it to Mexico alone. Stereotypes have long been the visual language the artist uses to communicate his ideas. He has spent years amplifying them to considerable, often comical, effect.
His paintings are full of weekend cowboys living out their Old West fantasies in front of mountain backdrops, of neo-adventurers conquering mountain terrain in fur coats and ski gear, of wranglers riding mechanical bulls instead of real ones, and wannabe warriors shooting off arrows with suction-cup tips.
He has a lot of fun, but also exposes how the folkloric fantasies and the regional realities of Mountain Standard Time collide, mucking up the ways Westerners see themselves and how outsiders tend to view the existence of people in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Sometimes, it’s as though things like dude ranches and taxidermied grizzly bears exist just so Stuckey can paint them.
As the wielder of a paintbrush, his style exists somewhere between real and hyperreal, between landscape and portrait. He plays up light and shadow in a way that’s very cinematic, and he indulges in overly bright colors to attract attention.
That last trait feels like less of a comic book-level fabrication in his scenes of Mexico, where heightened colors are part of everyday life. He pours it on in pieces like “Todos Santos Street,” set in that city’s downtown and depicting a cowboy in a sombrero and chaps, of course, sitting on a horse. In the background, he has placed colorful Mexican weavings, succulents and scores of traditional Mexican paper cutouts in fluid oranges, yellows, reds and blues.
In typical Stuckey fashion, there is a weird twist. The cowboy and horse are standing in the back bed of a refurbished Chevy El Camino, while a woman, purposefully sexy in a low-cut black dress, sits idly by, not all that interested in what’s happening.
A cowboy in a car? That’s absurd. Moreso, however, it is jarring, an invitation to examine what really belongs in a scene of 21st-century Baja California and what our minds permit us to accept there due to ethnic pigeonholing. Stuckey’s pieces are smarter than they let on.
He also plays freely with art history. For example, two works in the show, “No tire basura” and “Lastima,” borrow from Michelangelo’s revered “Pietà,” presenting an agonized male figure, stretched out and shirtless, being comforted in the lap of a maternal female figure. Generally speaking, these art references are painfully obvious, and this particular one is even more dramatic than the original, which featured Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But that serves to underscore the fact that we’re dealing in satire here, and not clueless bigotry.
Within Stuckey’s overdoing of just about everything, there can be at times a nice balance of technique and painterliness. In “Lasso,” for example, where two cowboys appear to be wrangling horses, he goes big with pink clouds and red dirt and a mix of tight and loose brush strokes. But he also captures a nice bit of perspective, giving equal weight to the one cowboy in the foreground, another halfway in, and that big sky in the back.
Seeing the skill in these works saves them in two ways: It encourages viewers to give Stuckey the benefit of the doubt — and that he does need. Painting the stereotypes of a society that isn’t yours is dangerous; a viewer has to take a breath and really look before reducing those moves to cultural appropriation at best, racism at worst.
It also allows Stuckey to be a humorist. Most paintings you see in museums and galleries are a lot of things, but rarely are they actually funny. In serious art circles, humor is frowned upon. Stuckey — consistent, talented, bold, an equal opportunity mocker — pulls it off. The pandemic might have done him a favor.
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