Open and Closed

It's tempting to compare Denver's vibrant alternative art scene to a circus. But that wouldn't be fair to circuses, which have only three rings, as well as an underlying organization and theme. The alternative scene, on the other hand, is governed by anarchy. Literally anything goes at the co-op galleries or ad-hoc art spaces that loosely define this realm.

Reflecting this riotous state of affairs is the annual Open Show sponsored by the Alternative Arts Alliance, the Denver organization that attempts to rule the unruly. Anyone who wants to can have work included in this yearly exercise. And the most recent incarnation, like its eight predecessors, was absolutely terrible. Even the good things looked bad, and many of the more than 400 works included were better suited to a landfill.

Thank goodness, then, that the Alternative Arts Alliance has also sponsored The Traveling Show, this year's version of the excellent juried presentations that for the last four or five years have come out of the non-juried fiascoes. The exhibit ends its stay at Denver's Art Department Gallery on Friday before moving on to Boulder, Fort Collins and the Western Slope.

The responsibility for selecting the work that constitutes The Traveling Show fell to a jury made up of Kathy Andrews, curator at the Arvada Center, Carol Keller, director of the Emmanuel Gallery, and regionally celebrated artist Tony Ortega. And we owe them a debt of gratitude for having the courage to take on the arduous task--and the almost unimaginable hardship--of having to carefully sift through everything in the Open Show to find forty-some works worthy of a separate exhibit.

The most obvious theme of The Traveling Show is the vitality of contemporary painting in the metro area. Though it's hardly an encyclopedic survey of current trends, it does map out a huge territory that includes techniques ranging from precision displays to messy expressions and an array of styles from representational to abstract.

Some paintings, like Dean Habegger's superb "Tangled Lifelines," an acrylic on four vertical panels of plywood, have it all. Habegger's painting is simultaneously precise and fuzzy, and representational elements have been combined with abstract ones. The principal pictorial device he uses is a meandering, full-bodied line, which in some places looks like rope, in other places like a serpent, and still elsewhere like the roots or branches of a tree. The painting, one of a series Habegger displayed last year at Core, also features an effect that suggests an aged surface. He accomplished this by applying the paint and then rubbing some of it off, leaving telltale traces buried in the folds of the plywood's grain.

Steve Alarid also uses lines as his principal subject and has also been experimenting with creating a distinctive painterly surface. But in his oil painting "Untitled" (part of a series he showed last year at Pirate), he has built up the pigments rather than wearing them away, as Habegger does. Alarid lays down a dark, murky ground of blues, greens and reds that have been applied vigorously in order to create a three-dimensional surface. Then, with short, delicate lines in gold, turquoise and pink, he creates a dense, swirling maze or web. The result has a decorative quality that recalls the art of Edward Marecak, a master of the painted pattern who worked in Denver from the 1950s until his death in 1993.

Another painter who repeats shapes to create larger patterns is John Crandall. But Crandall's influence lies much further afield, in the aboriginal art of Australia and New Zealand. "Dangerous Nanorikon Male," an acrylic on linen from his Pirate show last fall, depicts a nebulous creature and two lizards. Crandall's color choices are particularly becoming: a burnt orange and dry yellow predominate, and the details are picked out in black and red.

Not wholly unrelated to the hybrid trend that Habegger, Alarid and Crandall embrace are a group of standout paintings that illustrate the continuing appeal of academic surrealism to three of the area's most sophisticated painters.

William Stockman's enormous oil on canvas "Untitled (In Memorium)," a collective title he has applied to all the paintings in a series first seen last year at Pirate, reveals a landscape at dusk. The dark sepia sky that takes up a good deal of the composition is filled with stars done in black paint and gold leaf. Constellations have been outlined in the form of conventionalized figures. In the middle of the painting, ghostly children embrace an unconscious Felix the Cat. This is a very creepy painting, and very well done.

"Time Gentlemen Time," by Whitney Snow, is a meticulous sidewalk scene crowded with enigmatic figures and architectural elements. Like Stockman's painting, the piece is infused with a tension between traditional technique and contemporary subject matter. And the lively, big-city street corner depicted by Snow recalls the art of the 1930s. Among the actors on the busy corner are a gay couple who point to a street preacher, a bike racer on a bike with square tires, Raggedy Ann assaulting Raggedy Andy, and a cheesecake model posing for a movie director. The painting has both the raucous feel embraced by American scene painters like Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus and the sense for unlikely associations among the subjects seen in the work of Peter Blume, the pioneer of American surrealism.

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