Artistic Democracy

Denver's collection of art cooperatives--notably, Spark, Pirate, Edge, Core and ILK--are a boon to contemporary art here. Most major cities don't have anything close. The co-ops' great cultural value is that they provide opportunities for emerging artists and established talents alike to display their latest work free of commercial constraints; in fact, many of the area's best artists had their first shows at such spaces.

That said, during the last year or so, lackluster exhibits have filled the various rooms that make up this democratic alternative to the elite world of commercial galleries and publicly funded museums and art centers. Three current exhibits, however, indicate that Denver's alternative art world is still alive and painting.

The largest of the three, Co=Excellence '98, is the most interesting, primarily due to its size. This worthwhile exhibit at the Emmanuel Gallery showcases the work of more than thirty local artists; it replaces the traveling portion of the Alternative Arts Alliance's annual Open Show which--thankfully--was not held this past year. Pieces were chosen by jurors Jim Robischon (the well-known director of his namesake gallery) and Renee Stout, a Washington, D.C.-based installation artist.

Co=Excellence accurately reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the city's art world. In the show--as in town--there's no shortage of accomplished painters or talented photographers, but there are only a few good sculptors. The painters fall into two distinct categories: abstractionists and realists. Standouts among the abstract painters include Steven Altman and Jeff Wenzel.

Altman, who is one of Denver's premier painters, uses acrylic, crayon and pencil on canvas to create two lyrical abstract-expressionist compositions. In both "Untitled (Pink #1)" and "Untitled (Yellow #1)," he covers large canvases with a rich display of scribbles, gestures and marks, showing off his gift for automatic drawing. Unfortunately, the two paintings have not been hung side by side, an error in judgment that's hard to understand, since they are variations on the same theme.

Wenzel is represented by a towering vertical painting titled "Medicine Man," which is done in mixed media on paper using his characteristic torn-up-and-reassembled method. Wenzel first lays brush strokes on paper with commercial paints in shades of red, yellow, black and brown. He then tears and crumples up the paper, flattens it out and puts it back together, only to paint it all over again. This tactile technique is not unlike the way clay is worked, and a piece like "Medicine Man" reminds us that Wenzel, a protege of the legendary Peter Voulkos, was originally trained as a ceramic artist.

Also contributing notable abstract works are two artists whose fortunes have risen considerably in the past year or so, Christina Snouffer and Lauri Lynnxe Murphy. Snouffer is one of several neo-minimalists who have recently made appearances in the local art world. "Going Out to Go In" is a geometric abstraction in an off-white monochrome encaustic, covered with a linear pattern made of tacks. "Closed Sundays" is a grid of six virtually identical panels, also in monochrome encaustic but with linear compositions in graphite instead of tacks. Murphy is represented by a pair of her well-known, vaguely surrealist nine-panel grids, "Lengua de la Mano" and "Body," in which she paints subtle, enigmatic forms on the individual panels and juxtaposes them.

Several of the show's other painters work in representational styles. Jane Falkenberg reveals a technical virtuosity in two oil portraits of vampires, of all things, which unfortunately lends an unwelcome kitschy quality to these otherwise fine paintings. Jim Colbert mixes metaphors in a pair of soft-focus panoramas of the Western landscape in which allegorical figures have been set in the foreground; this style of painting has so many local adherents, it represents a virtual school. Peter Illig uses a three-part format to reveal an enigmatic narrative with references to classic Hollywood and art history. All of these artists are inspired by photorealism, with Illig making the most photographic paintings of the group.

Others working in photo-based methods contribute some of the best things here. Randy Brown isolates a single blurred male figure on a white ground; the man, who is dressed in black, strikes different poses that function formally as nearly abstract shapes. Chris Perez's "Succumb," a silver print on canvas, has a vaporous quality because it's been printed in charcoal gray instead of black and is partly out of focus. Dave Potter does the opposite, using a deep focus to depict the crisp details of a couple frolicking erotically in the great outdoors. Of particular interest are the multi-panel color photo enlargements of grandstands and race cars by Gary Huibregtse and the mixed-media piece "A Head of Its Time," a grid of three-dimensional Time magazine covers by old master Roland Bernier.

But Denver's no sculpture town, so Co= Excellence has few first-rate examples. There is a nice one hanging from the ceiling: Alex Harrison's cedar-and-steel "Connection" is at once airy and monumental--an unexpected combination. Using finely finished cedar pieces connected by cable, Harrison recalls the form of an umbrella that has been turned inside out. Doing the most with the least, in terms of both form and materials, is Craig Robb, whose "Drafting Cube" sits on the floor. In this sculpture, Robb takes three open-ended trapezoidal shapes and stands them on end in a triangular arrangement.

Over at ILK's main space on Santa Fe is the National Juried Show, which is only slightly smaller but considerably less impressive than Co=Excellence. Still, the show includes some visual treats that make a visit rewarding. ILK called for entries nationally but response was weak; it was mostly local artists who submitted slides of their work to lone juror Dianne Vanderlip, the Denver Art Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art. The show is dominated by painting to an even greater extent than is the Emmanuel exhibit.

Interestingly, a couple of the artists who shine in the Co=Excellence exhibit also sparkle in the ILK show. At Emmanuel, Steven Altman presented dense gestural paintings on canvas, but at ILK his composition is extremely spare. In "Paper 2," Altman lays small sheets of paper in a tile pattern on a board, then applies acrylic paint, oil sticks, crayon and graphite in an expressionist arrangement where the painted marks are so thin and sketchy that the paper's white color necessarily provides the ground. Peter Illig's "Allegory of Painting," another three-part painting in a modified photorealist style, is closely related to the two from the series he shows at Emmanuel.

Madeline Weber, an established local painter who has a style that lies somewhere between Altman's and Illig's, puts forward some of the show's best work. Her three abstract figure studies, "Clam," "Mr. Clam" and "White Nude," all oils on canvas, have a retro, modern-master quality enhanced by her use of traditional gilded framing. These three lovely--if odd--paintings have a quiet appeal and, because of their minuscule size and delicate details, demand some careful viewing.

One genuine revelation is the promising if somewhat derivative work of emerging artist David Phelps. In two remarkably similar wall reliefs, "Rusted Cans" and "Untitled," Phelps nails smashed tin cans to a board, then paints them in an all-over drip. In using the cans to create a lively surface, Phelps recalls Julian Schnabel's famous broken-plate paintings of the 1980s. And like Schnabel, Phelps uses the three-dimensionality of the found objects--in his case, tin cans--to stand in for brushwork and subject matter.

Over at Edge, Mark Brasuell's annual solo outing is all about playing with established notions of technique and content. In the Beginning is a series of monumental, unframed charcoal-on-paper drawings pinned to the wall, and it constitutes a worthy followup to last year's highly acclaimed I aint a'gin nobody... series. As he did in those earlier drawings, Brasuell combines a modernist abstract-expressionist style with postmodern conceptual content. Though he never really relinquishes control, Brasuell has long been interested in collaborating with others: Each of the drawings here was started by one artist and finished by another. The element of chance, inherent in this kind of cooperative endeavor, is what makes it appealing to Brasuell, and his skill at orchestrating it into a seamless series marks this show as the artist's latest in a long line of triumphs.

The unified character of the drawings is quite a feat considering the disparate styles embraced by Brasuell's collaborators. In "Bull Horn," Edge member Joan MacDonald first covered paper with a traditional version of "Our Lady of Guadalupe," complete with accompanying cherubs. Brasuell topped this recognizable image with heavy abstract marks and even erased quite a bit of it, making the elements from MacDonald's religious scene barely visible though still a key part of the finished piece. In contrast to the dark, heavily reworked "Bull Horn" is the light and more thinly overdrawn "Rejoiner," the only drawing started by Brasuell and completed by someone else--Dania Pettus, another Edge member. The most radical of the combination of drawings is "Pandora," the show's only sculpture. Todd Wenderski, the teenage son of a Colorado Springs couple who collect Brasuell's work, began "Pandora" by using origami to elaborately fold paper into the shape of a cube. Brasuell unfolded the piece to draw on it and then refolded it.

Taken together, these shows represent a good look at some of the varied talent lurking on the local alternative scene. But much more has been left out than has been included, so as good as they are, the three shows can only hint at the vastness of Denver's contemporary art world. They leave many of us yearning for what has heretofore been an impossibility: a proper annual survey.

Co=Excellence '98, through September 17 at the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria campus at 10th and Lawrence streets, 303-556-8337; National Juried Show, through September 6 at ILK, 554 Santa Fe Drive, 303-615-5725; In the Beginning, through September 6 at the Edge Gallery, 3658 Navajo Street, 303-477-7173.

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