Years before LoDo was a dull gleam in a developer's eye, northwest Denver's Highlands neighborhood shone as the city's unofficial arts district. Artists flocked to the area, drawn by cheap rent, urban convenience and choice hangouts like My Brother's Bar and the old Muddy's on 29th Avenue. There artists gathered to party, share gossip and sow the seeds of a powerful alternative-arts scene. Now common throughout the city, cooperative galleries first grabbed a toehold in Highlands, introducing Denver to the sort of outrageous art that still propels the avant-garde.

Artists who spent their wild youths in Highlands also found it a nice place in which to settle down and raise families. Nowadays LoDo gets all the attention, but Highlands still has the cutting edge; galleries like Pirate, Spark and CHAC survive as urban art pioneers, joined by relative newcomers Edge, Mackey, Common Grounds and the Bug. In addition, the area's Latino influence has helped color the eye-popping public art contributions that outshine and outnumber similar projects in lower downtown.

Both Highlands' co-ops and its public-art scene dazzle this month: A quietly revolutionary show at Pirate and a new installation just a few blocks away demonstrate the neighborhood's creativity and commitment.

Stephen Batura's Republic, a series of new paintings, embraces many of the qualities for which Pirate is infamous: journeyman craftsmanship obsessively applied to projects with absurd premises, grandiose scale and ambition in contrast to the gallery's humble and grungy character, and, most visibly, thrift-store materials and imagery.

At first glance, these paintings seem as mild-mannered as Chia Pets. Really a sort of still-life portrait, each piece is a straightforward representation of a cheap ceramic figurine, the kind of kitschy sculpture that crowds the shelves at secondhand stores. Dramatically lit and blown up to human size on large canvases with elaborate gilded frames, the cute figurines turn into monstrous exaggerations of the coy social attitudes and cultural stereotypes they embody. "Woman With Hat," for example, is a romantic Forties-based view of a hoop-skirted nineteenth-century beauty. When enlarged to the size of a bread box, the original miniaturized facial features become weirdly proportioned and unnatural, a bloated distortion. "Boy and Horse," a moody salon portrait of an apple-cheeked Hummel figurine in lederhosen, opens the floodgates to a rush of associations, including the history of Nazi Germany, the subjugation of children and the untruths conveyed by "realistic" representation. But "Blue Woman," a poignant character study of a delicate ballgowned belle, uses a spotlight and an indirect viewpoint to relieve the exhibit's general tone of bitter sarcasm.

Meanwhile, down the street, a construction zone has been transformed into a secret paradise with ten murals designed and erected by artists Bob Luna and Martha Keating with the assistance of neighborhood volunteers and Denver's Per Cent for Art program. After Batura's ironic portrayals, the real ceramic art of Neighborhood Epic seems even richer. The ambitious tile murals, an offshoot of the 20th Street Viaduct construction project, tell the story--both humorously and beautifully--of Highlands, from the Cretaceous era through the future. Each central mural, made by Highlands residents Luna and Keating, incorporates lively images from the northside neighborhood: outlaw bikers, Amato lawn sculpture, Day of the Dead parades, even the soaring architecture of the Central Platte revitalization plan, including a riverside Elitch's roller coaster. Broad borders around each mural contain thousands of unique tiles hand-painted in marathon sessions by hundreds of Highlands residents.

Located in a charming pocket park next to the freeway, Neighborhood Epic epitomizes the best motivations of public art--but it's also a fascinating work deserving of private study.

Republic, paintings by Stephen Batura, through December 18 at Pirate, A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo, 458-6058, and Neighborhood Epic, by Martha Keating and Bob Luna, near 32nd Avenue and Navajo.



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