Visual Arts

Dana Cain's Art Collection: Mark Penner Howell

Dana Cain is the lady with her thumb in a million pies: The local maestra of event-planning throws several well-attended collectors expos, art shows, parties, chocolate fests each year. Her latest -- and biggest -- project is next summer's Denver County Fair. But Dana is also an avid art collector who's made a conscious decision to collect works by Colorado artists on a regular basis, especially after seeing the 2008 documentary about collector couple Herb and Dorothy.

Dana estimates that she buys an average of two to four pieces a month, when she can afford it. And her house is one big gallery/art installation, with themed rooms arranged and designed to best show off her growing collection. Over the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the individual works and why they belong to Dana Cain.

When Mark Penner Howell opens up his Santa Fe Drive studio for a sale tomorrow night from 6 to 9 p.m., anyone serious about collecting his work better be there: According to Dana Cain, he's well on his way up, beginning with his upcoming January show at Space Gallery, and it may be the last time you ever see his work at these prices. And she ought to know.

Dana is effusive about Mark Penner Howell's well-proportioned works, which brightly juxtapose retro pop culture images with gentle social humor. "In my mind, Mark is one of Denver's art gods," she offers, and the images he uses to spin the stories they tell hit her right in her sentimental gut: Dana and Mark are both the same age; many of their popular references are identical. And for her, they are a reminder of her own idyllic childhood in the Deep South, which she describes as "perfect" in every way.

"I buy art based on my own personal connection with a piece, and his thought processes and ideas so closely mirror my own that sometimes it seems like we were separated at birth," Dana says. "And here's the freaky thing: It's because we love the same imagery -- we both resonate with the same icons and pop culture references. It's like we're almost psychically linked. I called Mark up once and told him, 'I would love it if you did a painting with Laika {the Soviet space dog} in it.' His reply was: 'I was just sketching out some paintings with Laika.'"

Dana bought her first Penner Howell piece, Buddy System, after seeing his paintings at a show at CORE gallery. She went home afterward and actually picked out the work, a modified depiction borrowed from a Boy Scout manual showing scouts applying the "buddy system" while swimming, off his website. "It was juxtaposed with a giant freaking squid, and I've always had a soft spot in my heart for squids," she explains (Dana, coincidentally, has several squid-representing works by other artists). "I'd only seen it online, but when I saw it in person, I was blown away. Mark's a graphic artist by trade, and his sense of composition and graphics is just impeccable. Andy Warhol came out of the ad industry, and for that matter, so did Riva Sweetrocket. A lot of my favorite artists have that advertising design sensibility." Next, she hooked up with the cheerful Interstellar Hello: "For the record, I want to point out that that is not Porky Pig in the painting. That is Piggly Wiggly. I grew up in the South, and we shopped at Piggly Wiggly. I'd adore it, if we were going to be in communication with other planets, if this is what they saw. I love Mark's sense of humor: He's never slapstick, but it's always got an edge to it. And he's not as biting and scathing as, say, Bill Amundson. Mark loves our current society, but he can still make fun of the pitfalls. He still sees the element of humor in our flaws." But, Dana notes, that's not so much the case with the next piece, Instruction, which when you really look at it is a little bit chilling. There's a young girl on a scale, with her mother hovering over her, as if to pass on the importance of watching her figure for the rest of her life. "What Mark pointed out to me, is that she's looking down at the scale to see her weight, and he had painted a swirling black hole where the numbers would be," she says. "This is what we've handed down generation after generation: Watch your weight. When I first saw this painting, I thought, 'That's it. That's what it's like to be a woman.'" Instruction hangs in Dana's dining room, right next to Phil Bender's grid of Butter Mint candy tins, which has an evilly humorous impact. "You know you have to get on the scale, but then you see these 25 candy tins, and it makes you hungry," Dana explains. "And the real beauty of it is that the two pieces really play well together in terms of their color palette." Finally, the most recent piece of Mark's that Dana bought is Too Big to Fail, a large work that seems to show the world falling apart, with a smoking triceratops falling through a far-flung backdrop of exploding gears and solar systems. She remembers that when she first walked into the gallery and saw it, she started to tear up: "To Mark, it's about the financial crisis, and I guess it represented his IRA going down. But I think it's about extinction, not just of the dinosaurs, but the extinction of the thoughts and ideas of individual people. The gears coming undone -- as it applies to dinosaurs and to individuals -- are like a reminder of mortality. So it can make me cry, but at the same time, I think it's beautiful." At first, because it was so large and expensive, Dana didn't buy Too Big to Fail, but when Mark mentioned to her in passing that someone was interested in it, "I realized that no one else could have my painting. Ever since I laid eyes on it, it was a part of me, and I had claimed it as mine -- yet I never had made the arrangements to own it. But the thought of someone else having it hanging in their house! I had been planning all year where it would go in mine, so I went ahead and bought it." And here, she changes direction to make an encouraging point for would-be collectors: "I'd like to remind people that every gallery and every artist and at every co-op, they all will take payments. I paid it off over a period of a few months, and now I have it forever and ever."

Mark Penner Howell's studio is at 900 Santa Fe Drive; those looking for a deal on his paintings at the studio should be sure to mention the discount before making a purchase. Visit Penner Howell's website for a fuller look at his work.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd