Absolutely Fabulous

Denver is a little bit duller without the life and art of John Haeseler.

There's been a lot of talk about the burgeoning art scene in Denver, with dozens of venues featuring the work of hundreds of artists. The current culture boom is best exemplified by the strip of galleries that line Santa Fe Drive, an area that has been almost universally hailed as the city's premier art district. For old-timers like me, this is kind of funny, because in 1990 there was an art district near 17th and Wazee streets that blew Santa Fe away.

There's still evidence of this LoDo district in the forms of Sloane Gallery, Metro State's Center for Visual Art and Robischon Gallery. But at one time there were many more than just this distinguished trio, including Payton-Rule, Bill Havu's 1/1, Sandy Carson Gallery and Hassel Haeseler.

Only Hassel Haeseler, a partnership of dealer Joshua Hassel and artist John Haeseler, completely disappeared. Payton-Rule was succeeded by Rule, now on Broadway; 1/1 became William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle; and Sandy Carson wound up on Santa Fe.

Haeseler, on the other hand, was forced to give up art-making and take a conventional job, for the first time ever, to address financial problems brought on by the gallery's failure. Before ending his art career ten years ago, he had worked for two decades at the cutting edge of neo-dada and post-pop, and his pieces were often outrageous, with gender-bending content. Even more outrageous was the fact that he was able to sell it. I see him as the aesthetic godfather of so many younger artists who have never heard of him or seen his work. Unfortunately, they'll never get the opportunity to meet him because of Haeseler's untimely death at the age of 55 on December 22. It really marks the end of an era.

Haeseler was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1951, moving with his family to Colorado Springs when he was ten. Early on, he was interested in art, television, music and pop culture, and he ultimately gained an encyclopedic knowledge that he later used in his work.

As I think back on Haeseler's remarkable, though now mostly forgotten, art career, it's astounding how much he did and how many different mediums he addressed, including painting, drawing, photography, collage, installation and even fibers -- the improbable place where it all began. While still a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he earned a fine-arts degree in 1977, Haeseler became a protegé of Lynn Fife, who taught there and introduced him to textile art. Haeseler pushed the folksy craft medium into contemporary art by using unlikely materials in his weaving and crocheting. Instead of yarn, Haeseler used trash-can liners, audiotape, gauze and anything else he could think of. This kind of conceptual deconstruction of weaving was radical at the time, as was his use of plaster casts and glitter as textile elements. Not only that, but his fibers were created as three-dimensional installations rather than flat wall hangings, which even today are the standard of the medium.

At the same time, Haeseler was doing densely composed abstract ink drawings on graph paper and other pre-printed papers. As with the textiles, he added conceptual content, in this case by using the marks already on the papers as key aspects of his drawings. The use of printed paper led directly to his using Xerox machines as a method of making art. Photocopy art is ubiquitous today, especially in the field of rock-band fliers, but when Haeseler started doing it, almost no one else was. He was clearly the first artist in this region to employ the technique.

At first Haeseler used Xerox machines to copy portions of his drawings so that he could introduce repetition. He also turned his textiles into prints by running his fiber pieces over the photocopier. Eventually, photocopying became his chief medium, and he used it in every way he could think of with a wide array of other materials and methods.

There's a Warhol-like quality to these photocopy pieces, but there are also references to comic strips, movie posters, magazine ads and product design. As such, Haeseler's early mixed-media works are stylistically related to the photo montages of Betty Hahn, with whom he studied while attending graduate school at the University of New Mexico between 1980 and 1982. But here's an odd fact: Haeseler was doing work related to Hahn's before ever meeting her.

Haeseler moved to Denver in 1984 to run Newsgallery, a funky Capitol Hill spot owned by Hassel that showcased some of the city's most interesting artists, including, of course, Haeseler. He first established his name in Denver with self-portraits done as women. He did different series of these based on hypothetical women, including drag queen Lana Lust, career gal Judith Rizzo, civil-rights advocate Freda Peebles, movie star Martine Henderson, socialite Diane di Vito and hundreds more. It's easy, in retrospect, to see why these pseudo-portraits created such a stir, given the inherent political content of creating gender-bending works in the context of the struggle for gay rights. As a result, there was narrative in them beyond what could be expected from an ordinary portrait. Maybe that's why the Denver Art Museum acquired one of his Diane di Vito pieces.

The full-blown portraits began with either photo-booth photo strips or snapshots that Haeseler photocopied and later altered with pencils, pastels and chalks. He then copied the altered image again and used it as the basis for a commercially done photo enlargement. Finally, he attached the image to a board or a stretched canvas and used that as the basis for expressive mixed-media paintings. The finished pieces were interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. So not only were they expressions of the art of identity, but they were also hermeneutical and conceptual.

The various methods Haeseler used for visual effects -- such as applying sections of painted gauze or spray-spattering the surface with paint -- were ideal for doing portraits not only of himself, but of other people as well. He definitely hit a home run with this idea, garnering many commissions for portraits in his signature style. People all over Denver -- and in Seattle, Sun Valley and Chicago, where he also exhibited -- had theirs done by Haeseler, especially artists. In many cases, Haeseler didn't wait for a go-ahead from a client, but would do a piece on a whim. Sometimes the unwitting subject would see it for the first time in a show and, amazingly, buy it.

In 1993, Hassel Haeseler hit the brick wall of Denver's economy and closed, leaving Haeseler in debt and without a venue. He subsequently showed at Rule and had his last solo at Mackey Gallery in 1995. Even though he was under various stresses, he'd begun to tackle his lifelong weight problem and lost a hundred pounds. His weight loss became the subject of that last show, which included an installation of ten ten-pound bags of potatoes. Haeseler often did art about food, including cans with Haeseler-made labels, tortillas rubber-stamped with the image of his face in the guise of the Madonna's, and, in that same vein, "The McDonna," in which he appears as a miraculous Lourdes-like vision endorsing the Big Mac he holds in his hand. Did I mention the imaginary deli "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses"?

Humor and a sense of irony were central to Haeseler's art and life. In response to being diagnosed with heart disease and type 2 diabetes some five years ago, Haeseler remarked, "Well, as usual, I've thought of everything." It was something he often said; strangely enough, it aptly sums up the circumstances of his death. Until a week or so before he died, Haeseler had been at University Hospital, near where his friends lived, but was transferred to a nursing facility in the remote northern suburbs because he seemed to be improving. Then, as the blizzard hit on December 20, he took an unexpected turn for the worse. Because of the storm, no one could get up to see him, and, with a breathing tube, he could no longer talk on the phone. So, as you can see, he'd thought of everything again.

During his twenty-year run as a studio artist, Haeseler produced a huge body of work; much of it is in his estate, with more in private collections. This means that doing a proper Haeseler retrospective -- which I wish had been done last year while he still could have enjoyed it -- would be eminently possible. But there are only a few spots in town big enough, since many Haeselers are huge and others are made up of multiple parts. I think it would be relevant right now, because much of Haeseler's work was ahead of its time and would relate perfectly to what's happening today. Not only that, but it's been so long since his art has been out that all of it will look absolutely fresh -- even to those of us who fondly remember it.

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