Art News

Denver Remembers Artist Chaesdegango

"Aunt Gladys and Her Friends"
"Aunt Gladys and Her Friends" Chaesdegango

click to enlarge "The Enigma Brothers Disguised as American Tourists" - CHAESDEGANGO
"The Enigma Brothers Disguised as American Tourists"
Known for his brightly colored paintings, kind persona and quiet nature, the enigmatic Denver artist Ron Chidester, aka Chaesdegango, who passed away at age 68 in November 2019, will be remembered at a celebration at the Mercury Cafe on September 12.

His friends originally scheduled the pop-up exhibition and memorial for March 2020, to expose his work to a wider audience, but the event was canceled because of COVID-19, says Joe De Rose, former owner of Muddy’s Cafe and one of the organizers.

“He never promoted his work,” De Rose says. “He was just that humble.” But his work hung on the walls of Muddy’s Cafe, and his perspective influenced a community of musicians, artists, thespians, punks and beatniks. The memorial will give Denver space to honor that legacy.

The paintings “speak to a fantasy,” De Rose explains. “But it’s not a fantasy. It’s just his way of looking at the world.”

In the early ’90s, Chaesdegango explained his vision: “All realities are simulations of the imagination. I project magic realities and am therefore a realist.”

Irony lurks in the juxtaposition between his paintings’ titles and their images. For example, “Aunt Gladys and Her Friends” groups a rainbow of armchairs together, while “The Enigma Brothers Disguised as American Tourists” depicts a turquoise-colored donkey pulling a multi-colored, smiling fish in a wagon against an ocean-liner background.

“In a sense, he was a street poet. Not a busker, but a poet,” De Rose says. His paintings are “odd, sort of primitive, sort of bold, and humorous.”
click to enlarge "Aunt Gladys and Her Friends" - CHAESDEGANGO
"Aunt Gladys and Her Friends"

Westword has likened his artwork to that of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró and described it as the definition of the Denver School: “innocently dangerous, romantically pragmatic, brainy, and a shade wacky.”

Chaesdegango was an electrician by trade. Skilled in older wiring techniques, he worked mostly on Denver’s older buildings. That’s how De Rose first met him, while renovating what would become Muddy’s Cafe in 1974. “We were moving into a very old building, and he was the very right guy,” he says. But “he was not faithful to the art of electricity. He was faithful to his paintings.”

When Muddy’s Cafe opened in 1975, Chaesdegango’s paintings were on display and available for purchase.“I used to have a rule: If you had guts enough to hang your art, so did I,” De Rose says.

They were marked “with prices such as $29.95 or $34.50,” Westword reported in 2017. “Bigger, later paintings might go for as much as $45. He said he just wanted to earn enough money to buy more supplies so he could make more paintings.”

“You would have to beg him to pay him,” De Rose adds. “He would say, ‘I think you should have it.’ He got better at [selling them] as time went on.”

Chaesdegango knew everyone at Muddy’s Cafe, even though he was also a recluse. “I would liken his social skills to that of a black widow — you didn’t know he was there,” De Rose says. “But his paintings had a lightness that attracted people. They were positive.”

“I am a romantic and a skeptic,” Chaesdegango explained in his artist statement. “I don’t care which end of the telescope you look through as long as you look with a mind that is open, prepared to behold wondrous and weird things.”
click to enlarge "Poncho Villa in Heaven" - CHAESDEGANGO
"Poncho Villa in Heaven"
DeRose has five Chaesdegango pieces in his kitchen and owns somewhere between 25 and 30 in total. Maxwell also has at least five paintings, and he built track lighting in two of his homes to accentuate the artwork. There are at least ten people curating the memorial, each bringing additional pieces for the largest known exhibition of Chaesdegango’s work ever.

Outside of Muddy's, he only had one other exhibition, at West Side Books in 2017. And DeRose isn’t sure Chaesdegango even attended. He “really never drew attention to himself. Even his discourse was on these canvases,” De Rose adds.

Later in life, Chaesdegango’s hands started shaking so much so that he had to give up electrical work and limit his art creation. His hands eventually became gnarled with illness. De Rose thinks it may have been arthritis, but he isn’t sure. “He just couldn’t manipulate the brushes. Large strokes were harder than small strokes,” he recalls. So Chaesdegango turned to pencil drawings and video.

The September 12 celebration will be a chance for people to see his work and share their memories of him, says De Rose: “We will say a final farewell without saying a final farewell."

The Chaesdegango memorial runs from 1 to 3 p.m. on September 12 at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street.
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Claire Duncombe is a journalist, photographer, multimedia storyteller and musician. She is a recent graduate of CU Denver, and a proud Philadelphia native.
Contact: Claire Duncombe