Justin Bua on chair in fron of his art  

Artist Justin BUA's Surreal world comes to Denver

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By Kyle MacMillan
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic

Bubbling up from the street-smart subcultures of surfing, hip-hop and hot-rodding, a new art form has emerged whose practitioners are as familiar with skateboard icon Tony Hawk and Krylon cans as they are with Picasso and paintbrushes.

This once-underground current, which artist Robert Williams first dubbed lowbrow, has subsequently gained such labels as urban contemporary art, pop-surrealism and 21st-century figurative art.

If it defies easy categorization, there is no doubt that this primarily West Coast phenomenon is quickly growing in popularity. It is spreading across the United States and can now be seen at the Limited Addiction Gallery, which opened in February on Santa Fe Drive.

in the last few years, almost every town has a gallery that's got some form of this art that we feature in Juxtapoz," said Greg Escalante, who in 1994 helped establish the Los Angeles-based magazine, which has served as a leading promoter and bellwether of this genre.

After an inaugural show that featured a cross-section of pieces by more than 80 regionally and nationally known artists - ranging from the stylized street hustlers of Justin Bua to animation- influenced paintings by "Ren & Stimpy Show" co-creator Lynne Naylor - Limited Addiction is settling into monthly solo and small-group exhibits.

The gallery, which began two years ago as a online discussion forum for genre devotees, was established by Dave Smith, a collector who used to work for a small Boulder marketing and business-development firm.

"I noticed there was a void here in Denver, and I wanted an opportunity to see these artists for myself and to help expose them to the community out here," Smith said. "A lot of people resonate with what we have. ... It's something that's different."

Among those people are Paul Krygowski, 50, creative director for the Internet firm Local Matters and a five-year collector of this art. He stumbled onto the gallery while strolling along Santa Fe Drive on a Saturday afternoon earlier this year.

"I was really kind of disappointed at all the stuff that I was seeing on Santa Fe," he said, "and I just literally walked by this storefront and I looked in and I went, 'Cool, what's in here?' I was really excited to see all this sort of talent really being exposed here in Denver."

This new artistic wave is difficult to define precisely because it is so amorphous.

It encompasses wildly diverse styles that are variously self- taught and formal, whimsical and biting.

Most of the artists move easily from the world of fine art to illustration and graphic design for video games, posters, album covers, animation and advertising. Others, such as Harmony Korine, Spike Jonze and Mike Mills, have gone on to careers in film.

For their subject matter, many draw on their own life experiences, such as Bua, who grew up in New York City in the 1970s and '80s, the era of subway shooter Bernie Goetz when the city was facing budget shortfalls, racial unrest and rising crime.

"I draw from the urban experience," he said. "I hung out in the projects. ... Every reality of mine is urban."

Although urban contemporary art shares some similarities with 1960s pop art, the latter drew on mainstream mass media and mass marketing, while this newer art form is more countercultural and subversive.

"I don't like trying to pigeonhole this. A lot of the press tries to call it a movement or a tight group of artists. It's really not. That's why nobody fits or doesn't fit. It's a constantly changing, organic thing," said Christian Strike, who co-curated "Beautiful Losers," an influential overview of the style.

Co-organized in 2004 by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, it included everyone from Craig R. Steckyk III, a member of the Dogtown skateboarding gang in the early 1970s, to graffiti artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Futura.

Most experts trace the beginnings of urban contemporary art to the late 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles, where trailblazing commercial spaces such as the Zero One Gallery and La Luz de Jesus Gallery offered some of the first exhibitions in this realm.

"It was more about the fun side of art," Escalante said. "If you were going to the same galleries that I was going to in the late '80s, the whole crowd in there was more a nightclub atmosphere - way more fun, younger people."

An early milestone came in 1993. Escalante assisted the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., with an exhibition titled "Kustom Kulture," exploring art related to California's low-rider and hot-rod culture.

That led a year later to the establishment of Juxtapoz, which focused on such car-culture art as well as work inspired by surfing and comic books.

"The museums weren't showing it and the other art magazines weren't showing it, and we saw that there was an art scene that just didn't have a ... niche to show it in," Escalante said.

In 2008, Laguna Art Museum plans to present "In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz School," another survey of this ever-evolving art current. It will feature 40 to 50 artists.

Despite such occasional offerings, the total number of major museum exhibitions devoted to this new art can still be counted on two hands.

Bolton Colburn, Laguna Art Museum director, said museums tend to focus on more conceptual work linked to Marcel Duchamp and have little interest in the often more-accessible style of urban contemporary art.

"People in the art world who are staunch art collectors and theorists believe in certain things, and this work doesn't fit within those boundaries," Colburn said. "Most of this work is just dismissed, because it is not considered sophisticated enough to deal with."

Hyoung ChangThe Denver Post Artist Justin Bua, sitting inside Limited Addiction Gallery, is part of a movement variously described as urban contemporary art, pop-surrealism and 21st-century figurative art. Pictured at top is a detail from Blaine Fontana's "A Troubling Myth." (The Denver Post)

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