Artbeat

Brief sketches of what's happening in the Denver art scene.

Zip 37 (3644 Navajo Street, 303-477-4525) is an artists' co-op with an atmosphere that's equal parts alternative space and tacky gift shop. Right now, there's something special on display in the former: An Unwelcome Guest and Other New Paintings, an exhibit devoted to strangely compelling little pieces by emerging artist Jason Needham. Technically, Needham's paintings and related screen prints are very accomplished.

Needham's unique style simultaneously refers to cartoons, surrealism, folk, funk and -- here's the ringer -- hard-edged abstraction. The title painting (above), which features an awkwardly posed seated figure, makes the point. It's a cartoon parody of a formal portrait of an abstracted surrealistic figure. The margins between the colors are crisp and tight, but the paint is mottled in some places, which is something new for the artist.

In most of the other works, the colors are flat, reflecting Needham's long interest in screen printing. There are many examples of his prints here, too, which Needham worked with fellow Zip member Mark Friday to create.

The show includes a cast of post-modern cartoon characters, including some that feature a creepy yet innocent-looking mouse, a signature figure of Needham's. "The mouse is familiar because of its relationship to Mickey Mouse," says Needham. "It's even familiar to people who've never seen it before." Despite the superficial association with childhood, Needham says he uses the cartoon characters in his paintings to convey not innocence, but an "undercurrent of anxiety, especially since 9/11."

Among Needham's more unlikely artistic sources is Alice Neel. In "An Unwelcome Guest," for example, Needham has used the leg of the sitter to stand in for one of the legs of the chair. He says he responded to Neel unconsciously and noticed he was doing it only after someone pointed it out to him. But the artist's influence was inevitable, since Needham took in last year's Neel retrospective at the Denver Art Museum over and over again. He had no choice: He's a guard at the DAM, and that was his appointed post.

This worthwhile show at Zip 37 closes on Sunday.

 
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