Making connections
A trip into the post-modern with artist Ron Fundingsland

Ron Fundingsland examines one of his prints, titled "Wheels," in his Bayfield studio Monday afternoon./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

Many artists, perhaps by nature or by training, have a different take on things. This creative point of view can help us, not only the artists but the world as a whole, see through, around and beyond some of the polarizing issues facing our planet. Some artists are called by worldly dilemmas, such as environmental degradation and corporate corruption, and use them as their subject matter. These artists participate in a genre of art called “post-modernism,” which concerns itself with the critique of cultural institutions such as corporations, governments and the mass media. According to Stephen Little, author of …isms: Understanding Art, postmodern artists “explore power and the way economic and social forces exert that power by shaping the identities of individuals and entire cultures.” Many post-modern artists are able to translate their social and political comprehension into aesthetic signposts that point the way through murky times. These artists, I perceive, are most successful when they link their personal understandings to the universal human experience.

A Bayfield artist who possesses this connective ability is printmaker Ron Fundingsland. Well respected in creative circles for his insightful, beautiful and poetic commentaries on our current sociopolitical circumstances, he is less known as an artist by the community-at-large. His voice, however, is better recognized; its deep tone can be heard daily as its wafts along the airwaves of the region on KSUT Public Radio. In this venue he is a devoted jazz aficionado, sharing his passion for the music with the Four Corners. Though his work has been exhibited around the world and is held in numerous major art museum collections in United States, the velvety dark tones and exceptionally crafted images in Fundingsland’s timely etchings are rarely seen locally. The nearest gallery that represents his work is the Robischon Gallery, one of Denver’s most highly regarded contemporary art galleries. This month, we have an exceptional opportunity to view his artistic and printmaking prowess at an exhibit in Pagosa Springs at the Shy Rabbit Showroom.

Over the last 20 years, Fundingsland has perfected a multicolored intaglio process that few U.S. printmakers employ. Intaglio, or etching, developed in the early Renaissance, is a printmaking process whereby images are created in reverse on a copper plate. A variety of techniques involving hand tool are used, in combination with acid, to create line and texture. When the image is completed, these etched recesses are filled with ink and a water-soaked piece of paper is placed on the metal plate. The plate and paper are passed through a printing press, which transfers the ink from the plate to the paper via pressure. It is a painstakingly laborious process, especially the multi-plate process that Fundingsland uses, requiring attention to detail that is befitting of only the most patient artistic temperament.

Over the years, Fundingsland has been developing a consistent and recognizable visual language using recurring symbolic images, such as a deep-sea diving helmet and a skull, to convey his observations about the state of the world. The diving helmet image rose from his fascination with seeing the original “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and he now uses it as a metaphor for the human race. “We really can’t see very well, we can’t move very well, we are really pretty clumsy beings,” he said. Fundingsland said he gets his ideas from watching the news, reading newspapers and observing the human species. In turn, he takes these ideas and creates thumbnail sketches that describe, through symbolic imagery, what he is musing on. “When I begin working on a print it’s actually a composite of ideas,” he said. “The recent work is about abuse in government, power and greed, and the separation of church and state.”

To achieve his artistic goals, Fundingsland strives to combine cultural and personal symbols that signify his concerns and offer meaningful reflection for the viewer. In “Wheels,” an etching rich with simple color and subtle texture, two Greek crosses, each rendered as three-dimensional forms showing mass and volume, float within conjoining circles of light. Slightly visible directional arrows encircle the cross forms, indicating that the crosses can spin in either direction. Each equilateral cross form is patterned with culturally significant images: one covered with the likeness of $1 bills, the details of Washington’s face conspicuously missing; the other wrapped with torn bits of the Constitution, the calligraphically penned words “We the People” somewhat readable. The cross forms feel heavy, almost burdensome in their weight, as if they are defying principles of nature to be hovering in space.

The work is a beautiful, technically masterful and insinuatingly provocative piece of art. It is satisfying to see socially conscious work that doesn’t answer but, rather, poses a question. It’s as if his etchings ask the viewer, “OK, this is how I see it … what do you think?”

Though his etchings hold specific meaning for him, Fundingsland is not interested in directing a viewers’ interpretation of his work. Like many contemporary artists, he uses the title of each piece to point the viewer in a certain way. His titles, “Oath,” “Covenant” and “Almighty,” may shed a bit of light on his sometimes ambiguous iconographic images. “My first rule when I am thinking of someone looking at these, is anything a viewer gets out of this is just as valid as what I put into it,” he said. “People see things that I never thought of, and I like that.”

Fundingsland said he feels successful as an artist when a viewer is intellectually engaged with his images; he believes a visual expression is not art unless it makes the viewer think. “I can marvel at technique and be impressed by someone’s art and wish I can do it, but if that’s where it stops, that’s not enough for me.”

“Prints,” works by Ron Fundingsland, will open with a reception on Oct. 15 from 5-9 p.m. at the Shy Rabbit Showroom, 333 Bastille Drive, B-1, Pagosa Springs. He will speak there at An Artists’ Round Table on Oct. 16, from 1-4 p.m. For showroom hours call: (970) 731-2766 or 731-2659. The exhibit will be on display through Nov. 12. •