Walk the Plank
Once upon a time in ancient Denver, when there were few contemporary art galleries and even fewer galleries showing unproven work, a ragtag crew of pirates fresh out of art school and unspoiled by the business of art banded together in search of a sturdy galleon with clean walls and no rules. One of them was Phil Bender, a drawling dadaist from Texas who was sure -- certain -- that he could find a cheap and shipshape space where he and his cohorts could hang their artwork in peace. One false start and a couple of temporary spaces later, Bender and his buccaneers stepped on deck and raised their Jolly Roger at 16th and Market streets, occupying two twelve-by-twenty-foot rooms in a building then being used as studios. The rent was $100 a month.
"We opened on January 1, 1980," Bender says. "We were all just barely out of college, and since that meant there were no more student shows, we realized we needed a place if we were going to continue to show work. But there was also the fact of being able to do our own thing, exactly how we wanted to do it." Twenty years and countless exiting and entering members later, Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis still thrives at its current north Denver location, pretty much at the top of Denver's alternative-gallery heap. The trailblazing co-op is celebrating this month with an anniversary show, and Phil Bender, whose gridded wall arrangements of hubcaps, cheap novels and other found objects have been exhibited at the Denver Art Museum, is still at the helm.
Taking advantage of the present Pirate's flex space, the collective show has turned out to be a kind of Pirate pastiche, arcing through the gallery's history as its varied works snake from room to room. In the Treasure Chest space, for instance, you'll find a show by a handful of original Pirate members, including self-proclaimed "mutiny artist" Jack Jensen and current Zip 37 member Jennifer Melton, who also happens to be Bender's ex. Though both left the fold long ago, Jensen and Melton have kind words for Pirate.
"Pirate's become a fixture, an institution in Denver," Melton says. "Longevity is part of it, but they've also consistently offered a view of some great local artists. A lot of wonderful people have gone through over the years, and the quality is still there." Melton doesn't think respectability has hurt the venue, either. The Pirate spirit, she notes, remains intact: "Back then, it was one of the rabble-rousers, one of the originals. During those first years, I think we operated on guts and ignorance. When co-ops start, it's hard to envision a future. It's more day-to-day, just hanging in there. Right now, five years seems pretty good for Zip. Twenty years seems impossible."
Jensen even has a name for that Pirate spirit: "healthy anarchy," a commodity hard to find in what he considers a homogenized '90s art scene. "People were more willing to take a chance then," Jensen stresses. "Galleries weren't the politically owned and operated vehicles they are today, nor were they run by suburbanites who only come to the big, bad city on weekends. Pirate had fun and semi-political roots, opening up not as a gallery that was judgmental, but as a gallery that would show anything. I'm still 100 percent behind that. I'm not sure Pirate is."
As Melton points out, however, maybe older peglegs like herself remember themselves as being more daring than their current twenty-something equivalents because they've forgotten how invincible and blissfully dumb they felt two decades ago. And some of Pirate's newest affiliates, such as associate members Keely Preston and Wes Magyar, say they chose the gallery as a place to start out exactly because the membership encourages chance-taking. "I've been able to make gutsier decisions as an artist than I would in other venues," Preston says. "For my first show there, I came up with a kind of installation, and I never would have done something like that previously. I knew it was a chance you only get in that kind of a venue, and I was met with great support by other members."
Magyar, whom Bender compares to the prototypical Pirates of twenty years ago ("with the funny haircut and all"), agrees. Pirate was the recent art-school grad's first choice when he went looking for a gallery to join. "I liked the idea of a co-op. There's lots of freedom and not a lot of people telling you what kind of work you need to be making," Magyar notes. "The lack of politics makes it very inviting. There's a great diversity of work, and it has the Ilk and Treasure Chest spaces, which offer opportunities to new and upcoming artists who might not get to show otherwise. A lot of other galleries just want you to sell stuff." Members, he adds, have been extremely helpful in numerous ways -- from giving advice on how to hang a show to lending him the use of their computers to make fliers and show invitations. At 23, Magyar already appreciates the range of styles that mingles regularly on Pirate's walls. Perhaps he'll be steering the boat twenty years from now.
And will Pirate be around for another twenty years? "If Phil is alive, yes," Jensen says. "Phil is Pirate. Pirate is Phil. Without Phil, there wouldn't be that ridiculous tone there -- the healthy anarchy. It is a way of life, and there are not a lot of people who can carry it off." Melton concurs: "He's the glue of that joint," she declares.
Reluctant to take all credit as the driving force behind Pirate's longevity and pliable spirit, the middle-aged Bender sidesteps the obvious question of whether Pirate could survive without him, though he's amused at the thought of himself as an 82-year-old artist-brigand. "I hope we keep going indefinitely -- even if I'm gone. We'll just have to see. Twenty's been a fine adventure. Hopefully, there's more to come."
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