Andenken and Spark galleries get the words out

Don't count me among the biggest fans of what's called "street art," a loose category that runs the gamut from graffiti to wall murals, with the former often being used to vandalize the latter. Vandalism isn't the biggest problem with street art, though; the key issue is that it almost never works from an aesthetic standpoint.

First, there's the quality issue, with most street artists being self-taught and thus typically having primitive technical skills. Then there's the fact that street artists display little awareness of what other artists are doing around the world, thereby dooming themselves to either create work that is disconnected from the currents of our time or to re-create the experiments of the past, unaware of the precedents.

But when I went to Andenken Gallery, one of the city's principal purveyors of street art, to check out When the lights go out, the Ben Eine solo on view there, I quickly set aside these prejudices. The reason? This show is dynamite and can be favorably compared to anything on display in the city right now.

The exhibit was put together by Andenken gallery director Tom Horne (taking over for founder Hyland Mather, who remains a partner), who has been interested in Eine for a long time and asked the London-based artist not just to present a show in Denver, but to make the work on the Andenken premises.

Eine, whose actual name is Ben Flynn, has generated a lot of international publicity over the last several years by painting roll-down shop shutters with letters from the alphabet. He's carried on this guerrilla art campaign in London, Paris, Stockholm and other cities, generating compelling and unusual typefaces out of found materials such as vintage advertisements or creating them out of his imagination.

The elegantly installed Andenken show includes several series that relate to the shutter paintings, notably the "A-Z" works hung on the double-height east wall. In each, an almost comaplete alphabet has been applied to square canvas panels. The colors and the styles of the lettering differ from piece to piece. To make these, Eine works with spray paint guided by stencils. On close examination, it's apparent that he has laid on layer after layer of spray paint, with the initial layers showing through in places where they were masked off during the spraying of subsequent layers.

A couple really stood out. As indicated by its title, "Shutter A-Z" provides a direct link to the guerrilla shutter paintings overseas. What Eine has done is to spray on stacks of horizontal lines to fill in the volumes of the individual letters. These lines reference the horizontal channels of the tambour-type roll-up shutters themselves. Another standout is "Glitter A-Z," in which the ground is done in gold glitter suspended in a binding medium.

There are also some works in which images of people are paired with words, such as "Famous" or "Vandals," making them clearly post-pop, along with the alphabets.

I'm still not convinced of the significance of street art as a whole, but this exhibit showed me that an artist like Eine is making stuff that's well worth looking at.

No one would consider Roland Bernier a street artist, since his work is more at home in museums — including the Denver Art Museum and the Scottsdale Museum — than on the corner, but his The Word Itself — and Then Some, on display at Spark Gallery, has an affinity with Eine's. Bernier uses printed words for his pieces, and it would have been neat to see the two shows installed together at the same venue for a striking duo. But by seeing one after the other, viewers can achieve the same effect.

The two artists come at their craft from different perspectives and with different experiences. What puts these differences into sharp focus is the fact that Bernier has been incorporating letters and words into his paintings and other works since the 1960s, whereas Eine wasn't even born until 1970.

Though Bernier has used letters — both singly and strung into words — for all of those decades, he was more of an abstract painter until about ten years ago, and the letters were just part of a larger set of simple marks that he used to make his pictures. Once he turned exclusively to letters spelling out words, he's been staggeringly prolific, with one type of work leading to the next in a relentless march of ideas. (If anybody deserves a Museum of Contemporary Art solo, it's Bernier, who could fill the place to the rim.)

Among the materials he's turned to for his word works are paint, cut plywood, vinyl sheeting and even Plexiglas mirror panels. For the pieces at Spark, he used sheets of tin. These tin works are not Bernier's most recent efforts; part of the same "The Word Itself — and Then Some" series, from which the show's title has been taken, were done earlier. In those pieces, illustrated in a pamphlet available at the show, Bernier used plastic floor covering that has pre-printed patterns. Also part of the same group are those made of felt, and some also have the pre-existing decorations, which Bernier appropriates as part of his own vocabulary.

Though Bernier has made a point about the free-associational quality involved in picking the words he uses, there's a literal connection in these works. What that means is that all of the tin pieces spell out the word "tin" — and all share the same title, "Tin With Words." In all but one of them, Bernier has painted them a flat and utterly even monochrome, then added other random words and sparely scattered them across the surface. In the single unpainted one, Bernier seems to move back toward abstraction. There's an atmospheric quality to the surfaces of the letters that he achieves by using an acid to etch the tin's surface.

In addition to the tin pieces, Bernier has done three series of collages. In all of them, he spells out a four-letter word, arranging them with two letters on top and two on the bottom. It's a play on Robert Indiana's pop-art totem "Love," which everyone has seen. But the reference is so subtle in the complexity of the color-photocopied pages Bernier cut up to form the letters, I missed it until he pointed it out to me.

Typically, Spark is divided into two mid-sized galleries so that two members can each have a show. But this time, the dividers have been pushed against the west wall so that Bernier could use the walls of the entire front space. The other artist exhibiting, Madeleine Dodge, is simultaneously occupying the same room with her solo, Some Assembly Required, but since her works are sculptures, they don't need the walls.

These minimalist sculptures, which Dodge calls "floor paintings," represent the artist's complete break with her past work. Five years ago, she was doing sweet, figural abstractions in cheery colors. The latest pieces are somber and, though small, possess monumentality. Dodge explains in her artist statement that several deaths in her family caused her to take apart and "reconfigure" her style the same way the fates had changed her life.

I have to say that Spark has never looked better — but both shows close Sunday.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia