Reed Weimer talks new work, gallery drama and the birth of Navajo Street Art District
Reed Weimer has been integral to the Navajo Street Arts District since its unofficial birth in the early '80s. He and his wife, Chandler Romeo, have worked side-by-side as both artists and landlords in this now-thriving art scene. Weimer -- whose paintings and prints hang in the Denver Art Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- is now showing new paintings for the first time in several years.
In advance of Weimer's show opening this Friday, July 20 at Z Art. Dept., we spoke with the artist about his process, the evolution of Denver's creative community, and what it's like to be the landlord of a gallery where you once showed your work.
Westword: It's been a while since you've shown your work. Can you talk about what you'll be showing?
I am very happy to get a deadline, so I could finally get some work done -- because apparently, on my own, I don't do more than make plans. The work in this show is a continuation of a body of work that I have been working on for, oh, I don't know, decades?
I made the sketches for these paintings back when I was a schoolteacher. I hang on to everything -- keep all my sketchbooks, keep all of my sketches. And I almost always work from these sketches; I've never been one of those guys who could just walk up to a blank canvas, make a mark and go from there. They're all planned out, part of a series. I like working in series and theme and variation.
That way, when I'm working on something and I get a good idea from a reaction to what I've already done, I can use that in a following piece or some place besides changing what you've already worked on. Otherwise, I think you just end up re-painting the same painting over and over. That wouldn't be good.
This [work I'm showing] is part of a series called "Overgrowth"; it's a formal abstraction based on organic forms -- from microscopic to landscape size, color and texture overlapping in indefinite space. Kinda beatnik stuff, you know? When your earliest memories are of crawling on the linoleum floor and looking at the patterns...
Who gave you this deadline to work from in the first place?
Randy Roberts -- an old, old friend who I've known since 1980 when he was the bartender at Walabi's when we were all punk rockers -- has a gallery (Z Modern.) He had seen some of my work years ago at Dana Cain's "Modernism" show. He said, "Reed, I like your price point and I think you should think about bring some of these down to the gallery." (Laughs)
As rapidly as I could -- two years later -- I finally went down to the gallery thinking, well, I'd like to get some in a bin, or maybe get some of my pieces around the sofas. He sells mid-century collectable furniture, motorcycles, all kinds of stuff. And then he has this art gallery. I wasn't even aiming for the gallery; I just thought, I've got inventory and I need to get it out of the studio.
Randy does business the old-world kind of way; meaning, you don't talk about business for a long time. You talk about everything else. So finally he said, "I can give you a show on these dates," and I said, "Well, right on!" So there's the show.
I stopped showing in galleries a long time ago, because, well, this is just the way it is: Galleries take 50 percent of the money, they all do. That's based on this "Well, that's the way they do it in New York." Apparently, there's no shortage of artists -- artists who want to show in galleries. But there should never be a shortage of artists, or musicians.
You've been working in Denver as an artist for a long time. Can you tell a little of your story?
I started off in the co-op scene -- which was no commissions, you just paid rent. But that added up, too; what if you never sold anything? You ended up paying your thirty dollars a month or whatever. That doesn't necessarily put you in contact with a buying public that aren't your friends and family.
So Chandler and I opened a gallery called Zip 37, and we tried to run it as what we called a "managed co-op." It was minimum commission and a lot of the business stuff getting taken care of because one of the experiences you get in a co-op -- or any sort of informal business group -- is that not everyone is going to share equally in the work. So, understanding that right from the beginning, we said, okay, we're going to do the work. We'll get the press releases out, buy the building, renovate it, those sorts of things.
We tried that for a while, but I think the reason it didn't work for us was that we were trying to be artists at the same time. We didn't have that much energy to really do a good job and make our own work. Running a gallery is hard work. So we turned it over to the artists, and it became another co-op. And the co-op model is proving to be good in Denver. I don't know about the rest of the country.
How did you become involved with Pirate Contemporary Art in the early 1980s, and what is your relationship to the gallery now?
It had started as a co-op, and I had joined it in the first year (1980), after what they called "the mutiny." There was a group of Metro students -- I think they had something called "The Denver Dada Club," also. They all joined together. They had rented some rooms above a Japanese restaurant at 16th and Market, and I met Phil (Bender) and his wife at the time, Jennifer Melton, at a party when I was down from college for the summer.
They said, "Hey! We've got this gallery and it's great and you should join it and it's twenty bucks a month and you can show your artwork." We went down to see the next opening, which was Jennifer's. At the time I was really into gloom and angst and Joy Division and the artwork in there (at Pirate) was so goofy and funny. I thought, man, I could do this. This is really a relief.
So I joined with a bunch of other guys. We didn't know about about the mutiny at the time -- that half of the people that had started the gallery had just quit because they were mad at the way things were going. But Pirate has been going ever since -- it's in its third location and the only guy there from the beginning is Phil. People go back from the old days, so maybe there's some original folks, but I'm not sure of the membership.
Along with your wife, fellow artist Chandler Romeo, you are the landlords of the buildings in the Navajo Street Arts District that house Pirate, EDGE Gallery, The Bug Theatre and Zip 37. Do you think or see things differently in the local art world when you're both a landlord and an artist?
We are really, really hands-off with business aspects of all the properties that we own. A few years ago, an artist had a sculpture in the window of Pirate. The people at the church (on the block) complained, they called me at my house, I had all the neighbors calling me, asking if it could just be turned around. I'm like, I'll find out.
Then I had the whole place in an uproar because it was like, "Oh, did you hear? The landlords are censoring the art now." It got ugly. They called my bluff, I backed down. It was bad. So now we don't have anything to do with anything that happens with the businesses in the buildings. We just manage the walls and roofs and plumbing and whatever.
Co-ops are the best tenants ever; they absorb all of the coming and going of members within their organization. We've had the same tenants in all of the buildings since the beginning. We said to EDGE, "Hey, if we buy the building directly across the street from Pirate, will you move into it?" They have been there ever since. It's very stable.
My brother, Alex Weimer, runs the Bug Theatre. He's my tenant, and when people find out he's my brother, it's like he's a celebrity. He's great.
How did you start acquiring buildings on that block in the first place?
The landlord was going to evict us, and we said, "Ha! You'll never get anyone else to rent this dump. We're going to move out!" That's how we began our negotiations. It took a year -- going back and forth from screaming at each other on the phone to them offering me a job as the building's manager, it just swung back and forth.
What had happened was, the lady who owned it passed away, and her sons inherited it. Neither of them lived in town, and neither were into owning it. It was a really run- down building in an increasingly bad part of town. They didn't want to fly in to fix sinks. They had an ancient handyman guy from the neighborhood, but he needed to retire. That helped us with our negotiations.
The big crash in real estate helped us, tool we were interested in buying it because we were already occupying it. We thought it was a part of town that nobody would ever care about and we could just do what we wanted and no one would bother us. Pirate was really a "destination" kind of place in the early days. People went to Pirate planning to stay until the keg was empty.
That neighborhood has really changed in the last three decades.
It's a curse and a blessing, you know? As a property owner, you are making a really longterm investment. There are so many aspects completely beyond your control, so when it improves, the building you own becomes worth more money, instead of the opposite. But then our costs go up, then we have to raise the rent, then people hate the landlord even more. Eventually, there's going to be an endgame.
We had some conflicts of interest after we bought the Pirate building -- we naively thought the Pirates would be grateful. Like, "Hey, we've kept the clubhouse!" But a number of them were suspicious and peevish about it. They thought we might raise their rent and throw them out. I was completely blindsided by it.
I stayed in (the co-op) for a while -- I think Chandler had already dropped out. It just got worse and worse -- like, "You're here all the time, so why don't you do all the work?" We were living upstairs at that point, so we were always taking out the trash, cleaning up, letting in everyone in when they forgot their key and sitting in the gallery when someone didn't show up. It was overwhelming.
We had to develop a thicker skin about it because, well, nobody likes their landlord.
It sounds like a very emotional business.
We had to give up some stuff. You had to get used to the idea that you might walk up to a group of fellow artists and they would stop talking and just look at you -- someone might think, "Hey, there's Reed!" but someone else is thinking, "Oh, it's the landlord." You give up a certain level of intimacy in friendships because they become suspicious -- it's more complicated that you imagine.
But we still have a lot of great friends who appreciate it. Our plan is just to provide the space for everyone to do what they needed to do, for as long as we can. We provided the locations, but the community developed itself. It fits in with the whole D.I.Y. thing -- you can still be in a co-op and still be in business for yourself.
Now (this block) has even developed a name -- Navajo Street Arts District. It keeps growing up, but the old crazy days are gone.
Selected Reedings: The Work of Reed Weimer runs through September 1 at Z Art Dept, 1136 Speer Boulevard, with an opening reception from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. this Friday, July 20. For more information on Weimer's show and the gallery, visit Z Art Dept.'s website.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.