Artistic Democracy

Denver's collection of art cooperatives--notably, Spark, Pirate, Edge, Core and ILK--are a boon to contemporary art here. Most major cities don't have anything close. The co-ops' great cultural value is that they provide opportunities for emerging artists and established talents alike to display their latest work free of commercial constraints; in fact, many of the area's best artists had their first shows at such spaces.

That said, during the last year or so, lackluster exhibits have filled the various rooms that make up this democratic alternative to the elite world of commercial galleries and publicly funded museums and art centers. Three current exhibits, however, indicate that Denver's alternative art world is still alive and painting.

The largest of the three, Co=Excellence '98, is the most interesting, primarily due to its size. This worthwhile exhibit at the Emmanuel Gallery showcases the work of more than thirty local artists; it replaces the traveling portion of the Alternative Arts Alliance's annual Open Show which--thankfully--was not held this past year. Pieces were chosen by jurors Jim Robischon (the well-known director of his namesake gallery) and Renee Stout, a Washington, D.C.-based installation artist.

Co=Excellence accurately reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the city's art world. In the show--as in town--there's no shortage of accomplished painters or talented photographers, but there are only a few good sculptors. The painters fall into two distinct categories: abstractionists and realists. Standouts among the abstract painters include Steven Altman and Jeff Wenzel.

Altman, who is one of Denver's premier painters, uses acrylic, crayon and pencil on canvas to create two lyrical abstract-expressionist compositions. In both "Untitled (Pink #1)" and "Untitled (Yellow #1)," he covers large canvases with a rich display of scribbles, gestures and marks, showing off his gift for automatic drawing. Unfortunately, the two paintings have not been hung side by side, an error in judgment that's hard to understand, since they are variations on the same theme.

Wenzel is represented by a towering vertical painting titled "Medicine Man," which is done in mixed media on paper using his characteristic torn-up-and-reassembled method. Wenzel first lays brush strokes on paper with commercial paints in shades of red, yellow, black and brown. He then tears and crumples up the paper, flattens it out and puts it back together, only to paint it all over again. This tactile technique is not unlike the way clay is worked, and a piece like "Medicine Man" reminds us that Wenzel, a protege of the legendary Peter Voulkos, was originally trained as a ceramic artist.

Also contributing notable abstract works are two artists whose fortunes have risen considerably in the past year or so, Christina Snouffer and Lauri Lynnxe Murphy. Snouffer is one of several neo-minimalists who have recently made appearances in the local art world. "Going Out to Go In" is a geometric abstraction in an off-white monochrome encaustic, covered with a linear pattern made of tacks. "Closed Sundays" is a grid of six virtually identical panels, also in monochrome encaustic but with linear compositions in graphite instead of tacks. Murphy is represented by a pair of her well-known, vaguely surrealist nine-panel grids, "Lengua de la Mano" and "Body," in which she paints subtle, enigmatic forms on the individual panels and juxtaposes them.

Several of the show's other painters work in representational styles. Jane Falkenberg reveals a technical virtuosity in two oil portraits of vampires, of all things, which unfortunately lends an unwelcome kitschy quality to these otherwise fine paintings. Jim Colbert mixes metaphors in a pair of soft-focus panoramas of the Western landscape in which allegorical figures have been set in the foreground; this style of painting has so many local adherents, it represents a virtual school. Peter Illig uses a three-part format to reveal an enigmatic narrative with references to classic Hollywood and art history. All of these artists are inspired by photorealism, with Illig making the most photographic paintings of the group.

Others working in photo-based methods contribute some of the best things here. Randy Brown isolates a single blurred male figure on a white ground; the man, who is dressed in black, strikes different poses that function formally as nearly abstract shapes. Chris Perez's "Succumb," a silver print on canvas, has a vaporous quality because it's been printed in charcoal gray instead of black and is partly out of focus. Dave Potter does the opposite, using a deep focus to depict the crisp details of a couple frolicking erotically in the great outdoors. Of particular interest are the multi-panel color photo enlargements of grandstands and race cars by Gary Huibregtse and the mixed-media piece "A Head of Its Time," a grid of three-dimensional Time magazine covers by old master Roland Bernier.

But Denver's no sculpture town, so Co= Excellence has few first-rate examples. There is a nice one hanging from the ceiling: Alex Harrison's cedar-and-steel "Connection" is at once airy and monumental--an unexpected combination. Using finely finished cedar pieces connected by cable, Harrison recalls the form of an umbrella that has been turned inside out. Doing the most with the least, in terms of both form and materials, is Craig Robb, whose "Drafting Cube" sits on the floor. In this sculpture, Robb takes three open-ended trapezoidal shapes and stands them on end in a triangular arrangement.

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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