I sometimes wish that before would-be painters took on the giant walls of old buildings, they’d ask themselves an existential question: “Am I Diego Rivera?” If the answer is yes, then sure, they can go ahead and pull the caps off those spray cans. If not, maybe it would be better to reconsider the whole thing. Judging from many of the murals around town, not enough people are asking themselves this question. A lot of the street-art pieces are little more than glorified signs, while others have a trippy, strawberry-fields-forever frothiness reminiscent of the 420-fueled doodles found in innumerable high school notebooks.
But there are exceptions, and many more will emerge as Crush Walls, an annual orgy of mural painting, explodes all over RiNo this week. Graffiti artist Robin Munro started the celebration in 2010 as a community-building vehicle, and over the past nine years, Crush has helped turn upper Larimer Street into the center of Denver’s mural scene, with a critical mass of works on Larimer between 26th and 29th streets, and in a nearby alley between 26th and 27th streets. Meanwhile, Crush Walls itself has grown to include dozens of blocks and 77 art happenings during a seven-day span that continues through September 9; it’s now run by the RiNo Art District in partnership with Projek16.
Denver’s street-art scene isn’t limited to RiNo, though. There are murals all over town: on South Broadway, along the Cherry Creek bike path, on random new apartment buildings whose owners think that art makes their projects hip, above the Sixth Avenue freeway, on an endangered portion of 46th Avenue below I-70 from Brighton Boulevard to York Street, where a collection of murals are on borrowed time, as the viaduct is soon to be torn down for a controversial highway replacement project.
Regardless of where they are located, these murals, like Crush’s founder, have roots in graffiti, though the two art forms are not only very distinct, but they’re sometimes antithetical to one another. While graffiti is often labeled “vandalism,” street art is lauded as something to celebrate, even protect. This is why the Urban Arts Fund of Denver Arts & Venues has commissioned street murals in what the agency calls “graffiti-prone” areas. There’s an even more substantial distinction between graffiti and mural painting: Graffiti is seen as the enemy of gentrification, while the murals are its agent, if unwittingly. The gentrification of RiNo is a hot topic these days and made national news late last year when Ink! Coffee joked about it on a sign. But whether intentionally or not, Crush Walls has had a lot more to do with changes in the area than has a coffee shop. The painted-up buildings along Larimer Street provide the perfect setting for the hipster Disneyland it has become, with its sidewalks swamped with moneyed millennials in search of good times. Although the motto of the RiNo Art District is “Where Art Is Made,” considering how many artists and art venues have been forced out by spiraling rent over the past few years, it’s now more like the place “Where Beer Is Served.”
But the success of art in this hot-hot area has contributed to art spilling over into many other parts of Denver. And even if our Diego Rivera has yet to appear, there are many undeniably great murals in the Mile High City, works that fully exemplify the spirit of contemporary art. Here are a dozen of the best, divided by neighborhood, as well as one epic failure.
“Larimer Boy” and “Larimer Girl,” by Jeremy Burns
2732 Larimer Street
One of the simplest yet most sophisticated murals in town is the two-part “Larimer Boy” and “Larimer Girl,” painted by Denver artist Jeremy Burns in 2015. This single-story building’s façade comprises a row of prefabricated vertical concrete panels, each with a raised, angled fin that goes essentially from the sidewalk to the roofline. Burns’s double portrait enlists this surface detailing in a novel way, making it a critical component of the piece. Using a projector, he created a digital line drawing of a girl’s face on one side and a boy’s on the other; they have an anime air that Burns claims was inspired by decorated cookies. He then turned the projections into drawings, and ultimately paintings, creating the effect of a lenticular image that flips from one to the other as you go by the building...and when you’re right in front, neither face is visible. It’s brilliant. Burns has participated in Crush Walls repeatedly and is on this year’s roster. I just hope that he (or anyone else) doesn’t get the idea of repainting “Larimer Boy” and “Larimer Girl,” because I sure would hate to see this piece go.
Wrap-around murals by Vyal One
2668 Walnut Street
This multi-part, multi-story set of related murals is finely painted and meticulously detailed. It’s the work of a legendary giant of the Los Angeles street-art scene, Vyal Reyes, known as Vyal One, who started in the ’80s as a graffiti tagger and ultimately started painting murals. As you can tell from this street-art masterpiece, Vyal One is a virtuoso with spray paint, with a level of control that’s absolutely mind-blowing. These enormous murals are a sensational example of pop-surrealist abstraction, with an all-over composition of orbs, spheres, bubbles and especially eyeballs accented by bars of strong color, all on a dark charcoal-gray ground. The otherworldly images are visual clues that Vyal One has put much more content into this piece than necessary for a fully successful formalist abstraction — which would have been enough. But in this piece, as with all the other works he’s done around the country, he taps into his Native and Chicano background, using it to convey his transcendental experiences when he’s gotten in touch with his spirituality via hallucinogens.
Floating man on the Dylan Apartments, by Jaime Molina and Pedro Barrios
3201 Brighton Boulevard
Jaime Molina has developed a readily recognizable style that crosses an update of old-school Chicano murals with magic realism. Working alone or with collaborators — as he did here with Pedro Barrios, with whom he has frequently partnered — he’s created street murals all over town with stylized Latino figures of both men and women, all with distinctive faces and set off by repeated patterns in their clothing and the background. Earlier this year, Molina and Barrios painted an astounding, five-story-tall rendering of a floating man on the stair-tower of the parking garage of the Dylan Apartments. The man’s expression is impassive; his eyes are closed in contemplation rather than rest. His conventionalized face is framed by his flowing hair, pointy mustache and long, scruffy beard, all of which have been beautifully carried out; his shirt picks up the flowing lines of his hair, dissolving into disparate images including scenery, raindrops and a star set in a system of blocky shapes. The piece makes a huge contribution to the building’s appearance, which really needed the help, and is highly visible as you drive toward downtown along Brighton Boulevard.
Kid boxer, by Thomas “Detour” Evans
2350 Arapahoe Street
A few weeks ago, the murals on the alley side of RedLine were replaced with a spectacular glamour portrait of a young African-American kid in boxing gloves who’s been captured with his dukes up. The piece was created by a major player in Denver’s urban painting scene, Thomas “Detour” Evans, and it depicts a friend’s son. While Detour also works in sound and non-objective installations, he specializes in heroic, formal portraits of black people and other minorities. His classic portrait style is vaguely photographic, but also has a lot of painterly flourishes that are not used to support the representation. Detour calls his approach “abstract pop,” and it’s easy to see what he means: The background of this RedLine mural, with broad slashing marks of color, including pinks, blues and reds, falls within the concerns of abstract expressionism; the depiction of the young boxer itself has a lot of Andy Warhol to it. As a result, the piece is abstract and pop at the same time, and so vibrant, it practically glows. I absolutely love it, even if I was sad to see a marvelous Sandra Fettingis painted out to make room for it.
CHERRY CREEK BIKE PATH
Bird holding a clothesline, by Blaine Fontana
Below Speer Boulevard at Arapahoe Street
As Cherry Creek wends its way down the middle of Speer Boulevard at the edge of downtown, its banks, a few stories below the street, are held in check by concrete walls. This left a lot of empty space that attracted a lot of graffiti until the Urban Arts Fund of Denver Arts & Venues came up with the idea of using murals to stop the tagging. The anti-graffiti campaign hasn’t been entirely successful, and some of the commissioned murals have been marked up (though since restored), but the program has resulted in the best-curated group of murals in town. At the top of the heap is Blaine Fontana’s meticulously painted work from 2016, depicting a bird on a twig holding a clothesline that’s hung with a birdhouse and bicycle gears (a subtle tip of the hat to the path that runs nearby), all of it rendered with photographic accuracy. The bird and clothesline are set before a wallpaper pattern on one side, a field of paint drips on the other. The piece is fabulous, and definitely deserves its high-profile spot. Fontana, an artist from Portland, Oregon, typically combines representational images with abstract grounds, and he’s done several murals in Denver; the one at Ratio Beerworks in RiNo is another knockout.
Exploding abstraction, by Oliver Vernon
Speer Boulevard at West Colfax Avenue
Brooklyn-based artist Oliver Vernon created this elegant mural, a pure abstraction, in 2016 on the bike path by the intersection of Speer and Colfax. Unlike many of the artists on this list, Vernon is more committed to studio practice than mural painting; this Urban Arts Fund piece was his first solo outing in the medium in more than ten years. When working on his studio paintings, Vernon finds the composition he wants instinctually, through the process of painting, but for this mural, which measures eighty feet long, he knew he had to take a different tack and created a preliminary drawing that he followed fairly closely in the final iteration. The piece comprises a plethora of planar elements receding in space, with varied all-over patterns that define the top surface level of the painting in several places. The arrangement of the shapes and patterns creates the illusion that the various formal elements are expanding, perhaps even exploding. Vernon also brought his refined sense of color combinations to the project, and his orchestration of these different attributes definitely hits a sweet spot.
SANTA FE DRIVE
Wraparound mural by Shrine
937 Santa Fe Drive
This wraparound set of murals painted in 2017 by Los Angeles muralist Shrine (aka Brent Allen Spears) on Sweatshop, a dance academy, rival the Vyal One mural in RiNo in size and ambition. Taking his signature approach to the north-facing wall of the main building and an adjacent east-facing wall of an alley building, Shrine defined the structural elements using grounds of mustardy yellow and terracotta red. He then applied innumerable small elements in black and white, arranging them hieratically so that they cleverly reinforce and redefine the existing piers, rooflines, doors and windows. The repeated shapes include simple stars, flowers and short lines that suggest braids when strung together; these shapes follow the building’s elements or are set in medallions that float in the middle of the defined sections of the walls. It’s remarkable how, just using paint, Shrine was able to transform the parking lot into a formal forecourt, a goal helped along by the charming handmade fence. Shrine has created more than fifty murals around the world; he considers mural painting a means of spiritual healing, and uses it as a way to transform what is ugly into something that’s beautiful. And that’s clearly what he’s done here.
Murals by Shepard Fairey, Jaime Molina and Sandra Fettingis
965 Santa Fe Drive
The Center for Visual Art is the off-campus museum of Metropolitan State University at Denver, which makes it an ideal spot for high-quality murals. Though a side of the building and the wall shielding the parking lot from the alley are devoted to ever-changing student murals, the stars of this mini-show are three masterful works around the south-facing entrance. On the wall to the left is a 2012 Shepard Fairey, in which a pair of half-tone Rolls-Royce limos — one with a license plate reading “Empire” and the other, which is in flames, with the license plate “Nowhere” — are parked below the words “Bright” and “Future.” To the right of the entrance is an enchanting Jaime Molina mural from 2015; in this characteristic, Latino-flavored scene, a hooded skeleton is playing a guitar in the desert. (Molina is not only one of the top muralists in town, he’s also a Metro alum.) The third piece in the group, on the wooden fascia that runs above and to the west of the entrance, is a signature Sandra Fettingis mural done in 2016. Fettingis, whose murals are all over town, typically creates linear patterns of simple shapes. In many cases, including this one, the lines and forms, though applied flat to the wall, seem to be suspended out from the roofline by cords, as suggested by the repeated vertical drops.
Abstract mural by Anna Charney
1075 Santa Fe Drive
A block north of the Sweatshop/CVA murals is a striking abstract on the south-facing wall of the Colorado Ballet’s Armstrong Center for Dance, painted in 2017 by Denver artist Anna Charney. There are Charney pieces all around the city, done in a signature style that makes it easy to identify her work. Her non-objective compositions of swooping forms have an op-art character, since the flowing shapes seem to weave in and out of one another in an illusion of three-dimensional space. Charney also adds three-dimensionality to the forms themselves through the use of repeated shapes laid in patterns that refer directly to dot printing and add body to the shapes. While completely non-objective, her compositions are realistically rendered, and the wonderful two-story mural on the Center for Dance is a superb example of her oeuvre. Done in blues, sand, black and white, it stands out emphatically from the charcoal-gray ground of the building, and it’s gigantic, coming into view a half a block away. Though the bottom is currently blocked by piles of construction materials being used on the restoration of the nearby Amick building, Charney’s mural still holds its own.
Abstract mural by Andrew Hockenberry
1109 Ogden Street
New York-based painter Andrew Hockenberry used to live in Denver. In fact, he lived in the apartment building opposite the north-facing wall of Potager. Back in 2008, he noticed that a mural depicting a sunset on that wall of the restaurant was almost completely obscured by graffiti, and so he pitched the idea of doing a new mural in its place to Potager owner Teri Rippeto. Hockenberry first painted a dark-gray ground, with a white rectangle framed within it to define the dimensions of the mural. At the time, he had been working on abstracts for several years, and the resulting mural is completely abstract, nothing other than a celebration of splashy, arching brush marks clustered together as they march across the wall’s surface from the street to the alley. Hockenberry suggests the landscape through color alone, with earthy tones below the celestial shades that hover above. It’s easy to imagine this mural working as well inside a building as on its exterior; it has the feel of a sophisticated bridge between the sensibilities of Monet and Pollock. Hockenberry restored the mural, which had been tagged and faded, in 2016.
Neo-pop mural by Molly Bounds
Denver artist Molly Bounds has developed a cool, neo-pop style in which the depiction of the figure, usually a woman, has been flattened comic-book style. Her conventionalization of the faces and carefully chosen palettes of colors with the same or similar values remind me of Alex Katz’s post-pop portraits. I’ve been impressed by everything I’ve seen by Bounds, but one of my favorites is the mural on the south side of Buffalo Exchange on Broadway. In it, an aloof young woman with cat’s-eye sunglasses looks toward the motto “She came from somewhere else...” The composition is brilliant, with the woman taking nearly half of the mural’s area while most of the rest is given over to a coral background that matches her lipstick. Unfortunately, this work is badly damaged. Not only has it faded, but it’s been tagged repeatedly since it was completed in 2016. The graffiti has been painted out in a few places, but the repairs were crudely done, with some of the detailing in the woman’s hair lost. Worse yet is the fresh scribble on her chin. Even so, the mural retains its tremendous graphic power.
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by Anthony Garcia Sr.
Federal Boulevard at West Sixth Avenue
In some ways, the four concrete bridge pier caps that serve as a gateway from the Federal Boulevard overpass to the freeway below represent the apotheosis of the street-art movement in Denver, since they’re a public-art commission. Artist Anthony Garcia Sr., a Denver native who grew up in Globeville, started out as a graffiti tagger and progressed to become not only a painter, but a community organizer and arts activist, as well. He founded Birdseed Collective to help emerging artists and underserved populations, but the organization’s mission has grown substantially over the years to the point that it’s now practically a social-services agency. Garcia has engineered multi-artist projects aimed at improving the environment of low-income communities, including Birdseed’s program that decorates dumpsters with murals. Garcia’s own style is geometric abstraction, typically stacks of stripes; sometimes he creates optical illusions by having them bend at an angle. Other works, including the imaginative “Crossroads/Encrucijada,” conceptually conflate minimalism with the Chicano tradition by rendering the stripes in such a way, and in certain colors, that they evoke the mood of a serape. These painted bunkers also have lighting components, with paired medallions corresponding to the center of the serape backlit by solar-powered fixtures. The piece is very cool, and an impressive welcome for those driving east into Denver.