In Black and White

Great photos by John Cohen at Singer, and quirky scratchboards by Jason Needham at Zip 37.

On the topic of enlightened leadership -- or at least the illusion of it -- we need to run over to old downtown Aurora, on and around East Colfax Avenue between Dayton and Havana Streets. These are definitely some of the meanest streets in the suburbs. A few years ago, city leaders hatched the notion of using the arts as a tool for economic development, and the area was dubbed the Original Aurora Arts District. As could be expected considering the established character of the neighborhood, the idea has never worked.

Not that millions haven't been spent to spark a commercial rebirth. There's the new Martin Luther King Library, a sleek neo-modern design at 9898 East Colfax Avenue by Michael Brendle, and the considerably less-well-thought-out Florence Square, by RNL, across the street at 9801. Though only a few months old, the square has already seen the murder of a resident in the parking lot.

Franz Kline portrait by John Cohen, black-and-white 
Franz Kline portrait by John Cohen, black-and-white photo.
One of "Three Large Clowns," by Jason Needham, 
scratchboard drawing.
One of "Three Large Clowns," by Jason Needham, scratchboard drawing.


5{ eye: Photographs by John Cohen
Through August 28, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360

Scratchboards by Jason Needham
Through August 28, Zip 37, 3644 Navajo Street, 303-477-4525

But city officials are committing another kind of crime: They've decided to demolish most of Victor Hornbein's 1955 Aurora Municipal Center, nearby on 16th Street. The wonderful Usonian-style complex includes a fire station, a police station, a city hall and a library, all of it now in disuse. The library, which is freestanding, is the only element that will remain, but it might be screwed up through remodeling. A new fire station with an undistinguished design is to be built on the site.

This decision indicates how wrongheaded the plan is, because logic dictates that the first thing that should have been done was a survey of the existing resources to identify the best of them for preservation. For heaven's sake, the dingy town's lucky to have been graced by anything Hornbein ever did, let alone one of his major projects. Why isn't the complex to be put to a new use as, oh, I don't know, an art center to anchor that would-be art district?

One positive step in bringing art to artless Aurora is Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, or DAVA, a public-supported entity that presents art shows and has an extensive outreach program. A recent example of its leaders' efforts is the group of five murals on the side of the Aaron's furniture store that faces Florence Street. The murals were orchestrated by Denver artist Jason Needham but were conceived and executed by neighborhood kids. Needham had a six-month DAVA residency and led fifty middle-school students in art classes. For the murals, he had the students draw their impressions of the area and then incorporated the specific imagery they came up with.

The two largest murals depict scenes of East Colfax and are done in Needham's cartoony reductivist style, which resembles the illustrations in children's books. This strikes me as a perfect fit when you consider that children carried it out.

If you visit the murals, don't miss the series of light boxes with abstract compositions done in monochromes arranged along the lines of a prism. These pieces, on the side of Pacific Loans, are by well-known Colorado artist Susan Cooper. Their location is only a couple blocks west of where the Needhams are.

Way across town at Zip 37 in northwest Denver is Scratchboards by Jason Needham, a nice companion experience to those murals. The scratchboards, as well as a handful of similar clay boards also on display, are done using an X-Acto knife to cut into the surface of the boards. This is like the reverse of a traditional black-on-white drawing, as the cut lines stand out white against the black fields of the background.

The knife method relies on a steady hand, because once a line is cut, there's no erasing it. "For every piece in the show," says Needham, "there were two I threw in the trash." Despite the inherent problems, Needham loves doing the scratchboards. "I get into a groove where I jam to these things," he says, explaining that he can do a couple of scratchboards a day, whereas a painting may take forty to fifty hours.

In most of the scratchboards, Needham uses an all-over pattern of waves and then puts a figure or two in the middle of it. Angular depictions of Santa are a favorite of his. Somewhat different are several surrealist portraits, such as the group "Three Large Clowns," which, despite the title, are actually only five by seven inches each.

The style of Needham's pieces, whether scratchboards, prints, paintings or murals, always remind me of early modern art from Europe. But more important for him is the example of American artist Philip Guston, who was a pioneer in bringing the attitude of comic books to the arena of serious works of art.

Scratchboards by Jason Needham is very elegant-looking, and I wasn't surprised to see that several pieces had been sold right after it opened. Get over to Zip 37 before the show closes this weekend.

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