Opening a new art space during a pandemic takes guts. Fortunately, Jason Rodriguez and Gregory Farah, who are now putting the finishing touches on their new City Park contemporary art space, ARTAOS - FaraHNHeight Galleries, have nothing if not guts.
Rodriguez, a printmaker, street artist and art activist, spent his childhood in New York City, the son of parents in the photography and advertising worlds. “I grew up feeling like I intimately knew the ‘people behind the curtain’ and how advertising was designed to trick people into buying things they really didn't need,” he recalls. “I remember being thirteen years old and hot-glueing sesame seeds on a Big Mac bun for a photo shoot. I had to go to Burger King and somehow just order buns. When I was told 'You can't just order buns,' imagine Jack Nicholson in the restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces, but as a small black kid.”
In addition to helping out his parents with their work, he stayed busy writing graffiti around the city. “I bounced between the fine-art gallery openings of SoHo to the train yards and subway tunnels,” Rodriguez explains. “My influences ranged from Marvel Comics and Futura 2000 to Warhol, Basquiat and Milton Glaser.”
He studied printmaking at the School of Visual Arts, taught himself digital design, and became an art director for Miramax Films and Sony Classics. But after September 11, 2001, and a stint volunteering at Ground Zero with the Red Cross, he and his family moved away from the stress of the city to Santa Fe, where Rodriguez opened a print shop and started publishing editions of Santa Fe Indian Market artists, made his own large-scale projects in a warehouse space, and showed work by artists and performers.
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“We thought it would be exciting to have a mobile art gallery that could bring art to small towns,” he remembers. “I lucked upon this sweet ’79 Chevy van — an old movie-prop truck, actually — and began popping up all over with art shows, hands-on printmaking and interactive augmented-reality demos.”
His project was named ARTAOS.
A few years ago, Rodriguez and his family moved to Denver so that a child could attend the Denver School of the Arts. Over the next fourteen months, Rodriguez struggled to find affordable studio space, finally landing one at JDP Studios in Lakewood. In the meantime, he started The MAG, which stands for Mobile Art Gallery, a concept inspired by the origin story of Torchy’s Tacos, which went from food truck to franchise.
Finally, last winter Rodriguez came across a gorgeous and affordable space near City Park, where he was getting ready to open a new studio and gallery when COVID-19 hit. “That put my plan back about six months, but we’re finally ready to toss our hats in the arena,” he says.
The new gallery will be a combo of printmaking shop, affordable studio space for artists, and exhibition space. It’s located in the Studios on 17th Avenue, at 2822 East 17th Avenue, a three-story, 4,500-square-foot building dedicated to art. The building is one of many late-1800s dairy farm outposts that dotted what are now the City Park and Park Hill neighborhoods.
“It’s a beautiful building from the outside — arched roof, park view, an awning that makes it look like a jazz club from the ’80s — and we have two attack gargoyles on our roof to watch over it,” Rodriguez says. Owned by photographer William Thatch and artist Karen Kaiser, the structure houses studios and other arts businesses. With oak floors, high ceilings and allies on the east and west sides whose walls are ripe for murals, the space is a true find in a town where affordable arts spaces are rare.
The gallery is a partnership between Rodriguez and Palestinian-American gallerist Farah, whose Taos-born and Santa Fe-based FaraHNHeight Gallery has been around since 2016. The New Mexico gallery showcases the present and future of the Native American art that supplies hotels and bars in the region. Farah argues that Native American art is essentially the most American art there is — both ancient and innovative — and likens it to blues, rock and roll and hip-hop, all born of the horrors of colonialism and slavery.
ARTAOS - FaraHNHeight Galleries is designed to merge the gallerists' aesthetic and cultural interests. It will have a soft launch showcasing local artists on August 7; that will be followed by an inaugural full exhibition, Off the Wall: A Celebration of Rocky Mountain Street Art, during which live murals will be painted from September 14 through September 20.
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“I feel that artists have a certain responsibility to hold a mirror up to our society,” Rodriguez says. “Those are the artists I affectionately call ‘artivists.’ Those are the artists I want to attract, collaborate with and promote. Message-based artwork rather than your run-of-the-mill pretty pictures — which, of course, have a place in the world, but we have plenty of those galleries already.”
Instead, Rodriguez hopes that ARTAOS - FaraHNHeight Galleries will bring something fresh to Denver's thriving cultural community.
“I think because of our open approach to curating, we attract a niche of art that is underrepresented in the mainstream art world,” he says. "We hope to build on that and evolve with the times and needs of the artists out there. We want to see digital arts, installations, interactive art, and shit we’ve never even heard of.”
ARTAOS - FarHNHeight Galleries opens Friday, August 7, at 2822 East 17th Avenue. Social distancing, masks and reservations are required; learn more at artaos.gallery.