Live Hard

Artist Mark Travis lived life on his own, uncompromising terms.

The shows of the last five years revealed that Travis had radically changed his style during his hiatus. The bold colors were gone, and so, to some extent, was the powerful brushwork, with the newer paintings being more subtly hued and handled. The biggest change, however, was Travis's thorough embrace of representational imagery, notably the female nude, sometimes rendered literally, but more often conceived as a vaporous and ambiguous apparition. His earlier pieces did make references to recognizable objects, especially ladders and shelters, but they didn't dominate his pictures. I've been stunned by how many people I've talked with over the holidays who don't know who Travis was or, if they do, how many associate him with his figural abstraction from the past few years rather than the thoroughly abstract pieces that established his initial fame.

On December 21, Renna Shesso, Candice Pulliam and others organized — essentially overnight — an impromptu memorial to Travis at Pirate Contemporary Art (3659 Navajo Street, 303-458-6058). It is made up of works from his studio, some of them unfinished, supplemented by clippings of reviews written by Shesso, a predecessor of mine at Westword who wrote under the byline Nancy Clegg. Several years ago, Shesso, working with Artists Helping Artists (AHA), helped to stage a fundraiser for Travis, who was in poor health. She also established a website, www.marktravis.net.

Travis's death reminds me of John Haeseler, another once-prominent artist who died last year, also right before the holidays ("Absolutely Fabulous," January 11, 2007). The two couldn't have been more different, but they shared certain characteristics. Both were only 55 when they died and had been major players from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s before each dropped out of the local scene. Both lived their lives in uncompromising ways characterized by a dedication to their careers, and both tried to make a go of it through the sale of their art alone, a very difficult thing to do. They were classic personifications of the starving artist — bad habits and all.

"Patchwork," by Mark Travis, mixed media on board.
"Patchwork," by Mark Travis, mixed media on board.

In this job, I have a front-row seat to the spectacle of the art world, and part of the system has always troubled me. Because galleries, museums and art centers rely on the support of wealthy donors, they play to their tastes and usually allow these donors to call the shots in terms of what is presented. But artists like Travis, who refuse to play the game of pleasing the powers-that-be, pay serious consequences, often living in poverty.

I know I'm probably spitting in the wind here, but I hope some large venue presents a proper Travis retrospective before his works are scattered hither and yon. It's the least the community could do for someone who so clearly left his mark on the Denver scene of his time, even if many have forgotten that.

Slide Show: A sample of Mark Travis's recent works. Mark%20Travis%20painting06%20019.jpg
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