Art Review

Three Galleries at 900 Santa Fe Keep This Art District's Label Alive

Installation view of Lydia Brokaw: Shapes: Employed-Enjoyed: Organized-Reorganized.
Installation view of Lydia Brokaw: Shapes: Employed-Enjoyed: Organized-Reorganized. Robert Delaney
You’d have to have been living under a rock, or way, way out beyond the suburbs, not to have noticed the soaring cost of real estate in Denver over the past five years. It’s taken its toll on the art scene, too. Artists have been forced out of studios and galleries — in particula, the alternative spaces — either relocating to the suburbs or closing altogether.

The latest casualty is Helikon Gallery & Studios, which Cayce Goldberg will shutter at the end of the year. What makes this particular loss so poignant is that with all the buzz about RiNo, where Helikon is located, it really should have made it. The space shows the kind of hip work that appeals to young audiences — like all those kids on scooters in the neighborhood — and Helikon didn't want for an audience. Nor were its studios going unrented. So what went wrong?

In a nutshell, the ongoing gentrification of the RiNo Art District led to the Helikon building, which Goldberg's family has owned for generations, to soar in its appraised value, resulting in an enormous increase in its property-tax assessment. Suddenly, the business was untenable from an accounting standpoint. But rising property taxes are only one of the reasons that the once art-mighty RiNo has been getting more and more artless with each passing month. The irony of Crush Walls, the annual street art celebration, having just finished its tenth event last week should be missed by no one. RiNo’s transition from a rundown industrial area to a trendy residential and entertainment hub is just about complete. And art can’t play in that league.

But if RiNo now seems to be all about craft beer and gourmet hamburger chains, there's a silver lining: Denver's Art District on Santa Fe is still holding on as the city's last true art district. For the time being, anyway.

Last spring it looked like Denver's longest-lasting co-op, Spark Gallery, might be forced off the street. Both Spark and Core New Art Space occupied two storefront rental spaces in a building owned by Denver sculptor Lawrence Argent, who used the rest of the place for his studio. When Argent died suddenly in 2017, the building passed to his young sons, who, not surprisingly, decided to sell it. Most people assumed the structure would be demolished once it was sold, and replaced by some new building with rents that alternative spaces couldn’t afford. In the panic leading up to the change in ownership, Core relocated to 40 West in Lakewood, and Spark almost did the same.

click to enlarge Kay Payge paintings in Living in the Gray. - KYLE SHANNON
Kay Payge paintings in Living in the Gray.
Kyle Shannon
But it turned out that the new owner, Kat Payge, wanted the building to continue as an art venue and studio complex. When Payge, an artist who was born and raised in Boulder, revealed her plans for the place, they happily included keeping Spark right where it was. In the space vacated by Core, a new artist collective launched under the banner of D’Art. And in the intimate space just off the entry is the new Payge Gallery, featuring the work of the artist-owner in rotating shows that will also include pieces by other artists.

After two back-to-back fortieth-anniversary exhibits that were only open to former members, Spark is back on its regular schedule of two simultaneous shows featuring members, with a third given over to a guest. In the west gallery is Lydia Brokaw: Shapes: Employed-Enjoyed: Organized-Reorganized, comprised of found-object sculptures, many of them incorporating the fragile parts of plants. Brokaw joined Spark decades ago, and although she let her membership lapse, she's now re-upped. In “Joys With Toys,” she has constructed a makeshift table of sorts with wavy twigs as legs; the toys of the title are brightly colored blocks and dominoes, which are scattered onto an informal top. The piece seems pretty fragile, as though it’s about to collapse. Another work, “Prickly, Stickley Rays,” with dead palm fronds as a chief material, looks like it would crumble if you touched it.

In the east gallery is Elaine Ricklin: Looking East, with paintings and photos by another longtime member. The paintings have conventionalized subjects: In the super-simple "Wyeth Country," for example, a flat, geometric shape evokes a barn. The paintings have been randomly paired with atmospheric photos of the landscape and the sea; the photos and paintings are very different in conception, and perhaps should have been displayed separately. The prints of line drawings of clams are particularly nice, though, and might indicate a different direction.

click to enlarge Drawings from Patrice Sullivan: Recent Work. - ROBERT DELANEY
Drawings from Patrice Sullivan: Recent Work.
Robert Delaney
In the north gallery is the very strong Patrice Sullivan: Recent Works, with closely related oil-on-board paintings as well as charcoal-on-paper drawings that exemplify a sophisticated contemporary realism. Despite being informally presented — the paintings are left unframed and the drawings simply pinned to the wall — there’s an undeniable elegance to the display. I especially loved the drawings, which could be readily associated with the work of Michael Dowling. “Bernice” is a classic portrait in charcoal and pastel of an austere older woman, with the crisp realism of Sullivan’s style enhanced by all the smudges she uses to convey the details of the woman's face and dress. The dog drawings are also choice.

click to enlarge Prints by Sue Crosby Doyle in Grand Opening Members Exhibit at D'Art. - KYLE SHANNON
Prints by Sue Crosby Doyle in Grand Opening Members Exhibit at D'Art.
Kyle Shannon
In the old Core space, with its own entrance on West Ninth Avenue but also connected inside by a corridor, D’Art is presenting Grand Opening Members Exhibit. Shows made up of the myriad pieces produced by co-op members can be pretty haphazard, since membership isn’t limited to one style or another, but that’s not the case here. Although a number of different approaches are included, the show has been hung in such a way that it makes sense as a group effort: an arc from representation to non-objective, with color landscape photography at one end and formalist abstraction at the other. Part of what makes this work is the related approach to color shared by many of the members, with palettes tending toward rich or bold tones. The other reason it works is the handsome installation itself, with each artist given his or her own area. And mostly her, since there's only one male D’Art-ster on a membership list of both newcomers and veteran artists that includes Sue Crosby Doyle, Carrie MaKenna, Susan M. Gibbons, Gabrielle Shannon, Jean Smith and Faith Williams.

click to enlarge Pieces by Kim Roberts (left) and Gabrielle Shannon at D'Art. - KYLE SHANNON
Pieces by Kim Roberts (left) and Gabrielle Shannon at D'Art.
Kyle Shannon
When Core occupied this building, the small front room off the entry was a rental space, but now it’s the Payge Gallery. The first show here, Living in the Gray, pairs Kat Payge's layered, lyrical, all-over abstractions, which subtly refer to natural forms, with a suspended installation by Annette Coleman. In the Payge paintings, blobs of pigment are applied in clusters or lines that look like they've been transferred to the surfaces, while in other spots, there are instinctual scribbles. Payge's eye for color is unerring, and the work is very well done. It's so good, in fact, that it proves the Payge Gallery is anything but a vanity space.

I'll hate to see Helikon go, but I’m glad that Payge saved Spark from having to leave town, and that she also provided space for other artists to come up with a brand-new co-op, D’Art.

Lydia Brokaw, Elaine Ricklin, Patrice Sullivan, through September 22, Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-889-2200,

D’Art Grand Opening Members Exhibit, through September 15, D’Art Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-486-7735,

Living in the Gray, Payge Gallery, through September 29, 900 Santa Fe Drive,
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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