Flash Point

The Spark Gallery has reached a milestone: It has two decades' worth of history under its belt. To mark this momentous event, the current members of the city's oldest extant art cooperative invited back its founders, none of whom are still involved with Spark, and many of whom no longer live in the area. The result is the riveting Twentieth Anniversary Celebration exhibit, which is essential viewing for anyone interested in the local art world.

It's no exaggeration to say that when Spark opened in the fall of 1979, it launched the alternative scene that is still a vibrant part of the city's artistic life. Soon after, in 1980, Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis came on line. A couple of years later, Core New Art Space opened, followed by the Edge Gallery and all the rest. In the intervening years, the alternative scene blossomed, and many galleries and organizations have come and gone since Spark first opened its doors.

Spark was founded by two artists, Andy Libertone and Paul Gillis, both of whom had only recently moved to Denver from Boulder. The artist pals rented a vacant Victorian store front at the corner of 33rd Avenue and Osage Street. The neglected structure had once been occupied by the Mancinelli grocery store, which had moved to a new building a few blocks away. "We were sitting on the floor when we came up with the idea," recalls Libertone. "Paul and I both lived there and had our studios there. We rented out the front to Carlos Fresquez."

Libertone and Gillis felt that an exhibition venue was needed to serve as an alternative to the handful of commercial galleries then in Denver that were displaying contemporary art. That's why it's called the alternative scene--and not, as many believe, because the art is alternative. In fact, as is true these days as well, many of the same artists exhibit in both the alternative and commercial realms.

According to Libertone, the thirteen artists who first came together to create Spark did so as a result of networking. "We talked to friends and they talked to their friends and that's how we came up with the original group," says Libertone.

But it wasn't as easy as it looks, says Gillis. "Finding the right people was the most important thing." And he adds that artists needed to have the time not only to do their own work, but to work on the gallery, too.

Gillis sees the lack of space for exhibitions as a perpetual problem for artists throughout history. "There was nothing new about the idea for Spark," says Gillis, "because co-ops were in the air at the time, and there had already been one in Boulder."

Gillis is referring to Boulder's Edge Gallery, not to be confused with the Denver co-op of the same name. The former Edge, which was located on Pearl Street, lasted for only a year after it opened in 1975.

Though neither Libertone nor Gillis had been members of Edge, many of their friends were--and so were the first artists to be recruited for Spark. A number of the former Edge artists were part of the Criss Cross group, which championed mathematically based abstractions. Clark Richert, a founder of Criss Cross and one of the first of the Edge group to join Spark, clarifies the distinction between the two Boulder-based associations. "Criss Cross had its offices in the Edge Gallery, but Criss Cross was not Edge," he explains. Edge was devoted to all kinds of abstraction, and Criss Cross championed a very specific pattern painting approach.

Gillis also drives home the point that "Spark was not a spin-off of Edge, as some people believe." Margaret Neumann is another of the first members of Spark, but she was not connected to either Edge or Criss Cross. She adds that "Edge was not Spark. There was no prescribed ideology that unified the Spark members. Edge was about abstraction, and Criss Cross was about structured abstraction...but at Spark there was a strong figural current also."

A figural abstractionist, Neumann was key to the founding of Spark. In fact, the evocative name of the co-op was actually taken from Neumann's now-deceased dog Sparky.

Neumann's point about the important role of figurative art at early Spark is well-taken, as the show reveals.

On one hand are the many hard-edged abstractions of the Criss Cross artists; on the other are figural paintings that feature a variety of unrelated abstract and representational styles. Interestingly, the work of Libertone and Gillis can't be neatly fit into this easy division between patterned abstraction and figural revival. The work of each is highly individualized.

The founding group remained in Spark until 1984. "We all quit at the same time," says Libertone. "Someone said it was because we all got jobs."

Twentieth Anniversary Celebration brings the group back together for the first time since those days. The exhibit, which took months to prepare, was put together by longtime Spark member Sally Elliott and co-op director Annalee Schorr. "With a lot of help from Andy [Libertone] and Paul [Gillis], who tracked down the founding members," says Schorr. She and Elliott intended to represent each artist with both an older piece and a current one. They achieved their goal in nearly every case.

The show pushes the physical limits of Spark's two-room space and, by necessity, the exhibit has been installed salon-style, with paintings stacked on top of one another. It's hardly ideal, but with more than a dozen included artists, they had no choice.

The first thing viewers see is the 1999 tin and painted-wood sculpture by Libertone, titled "Top End." The title has a retro sound, and that's appropriate, since Libertone refers to early-twentieth-century design, especially the art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s. "Top End" has an architectural presence but also a subtle figural sub-text. Libertone has constructed a tall, vertical assemblage sitting on a pronounced base. Circular shapes and motifs are used at the top and bottom. The circular finial on the top, which is pierced by a round hole, suggests the advertising globes that sat on old gas pumps. This kind of pop cultural reference represents a longtime interest for Libertone.

Hung to the left of "Top End" is Libertone's older piece, "Ringside," made in 1979 of wood, tin and painted tar paper. It's not so different from "Top End," sharing a retro feeling. "Ringside" is an old-fashioned title, as is "Top End." Both refer to art-deco architecture, and as in "Top End," the circle plays an essential role; here it is the center of a diagonal cruciform. Both pieces also display Libertone's accomplished wood joining and his expert painting skills.

The rest of the front gallery reveals the important role that the Criss Cross artists played in early Spark. These painters of geometric abstractions were among the most significant artists working in Colorado during the 1970s. Some, like Criss Cross founder Richert, are still on top.

The pair of Richert paintings, found immediately inside the front entrance, share the singular vision that has informed his work for decades: rectilinear lines and shapes laid down in an arrangement predetermined by mathematical equations. Math also guides the color choices.

On the right is Richert's 1979 "Q-Chord," an acrylic on canvas that is dizzying in its details. The large surface is covered with minuscule colored squares which come together to create an elaborate all-over plaid in progressions of light and dark. At the time, Richert was interested in flat pictorial space with only a minimal sense of spatial depth.

But Richert's flatness would give way over the years to his interest in three dimensional space. Right next to "Q-Chord" is Richert's newer painting, from 1997. It's another monumental acrylic on canvas, titled "1, 1, 1/-1, -1, -1." Here, the artist, still using straight lines but no longer having a flat effect, describes a hypothetical space with straight sides set at 90-degree angles to one another. In "1, 1, 1," and other recent Richert paintings, it's as though the artist has painted a window into an abstract yet physically real world.

Across the room from Richert is another Criss Cross member who joined Spark, Charles DiJulio. The artist, who now lives in New York, sent a recent small smudgy pattern painting, done in 1997 in oil on board, paired with a large gestural pattern painting in acrylic and pencil on canvas from 1976. Both DiJulio paintings are untitled. The older painting is by far the stronger and represents a classic period for DiJulio. On a dove gray ground, DiJulio has drawn a diagonal grid in pencil, and then, using a series of bold colors, applied dashes of paint on top.

Works by Criss Cross artists Richard Kallweit and George Woodman are also nearby. Kallweit is the only artist who is not represented by a new piece, but his old one is a knockout. The large, untitled and undated acrylic on canvas is covered with painted squares set on the diamond, in pointedly intense colors of similar value. It's physically difficult to look at, and given enough time, it will make your eyes water. Woodman, a mentor to the Criss Cross group, is given short shrift here with only a small print to represent his famous patterned compositions of the 1970s. Hung above is an example of his photography, a second career the painter launched in the 1980s after the tragic death of his daughter, Francesca Woodman, herself a recognized photographer. The weak representation of Woodman is the one major flaw in Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.

If the front space is devoted to abstraction, dominated by the Criss Cross crowd, the back gallery is mostly focused on the various representational styles embraced by other founding members of Spark. The two paintings by Gillis straddle the two rooms and lead viewers from the front to the back. This is appropriate because Gillis may be loosely linked to both camps. Like the Criss Cross artists, Gillis prefers hard edges, but like his other friends, inserts recognizable things into his paintings.

In "Untitled," a 1979 oil on board, Gillis sets a white figure holding cards in the foreground against a background in tan and various shades of blue and black. The painting is crowded with geometric shapes, in particular triangles, and with thick diagonal lines. In the newer Gillis, a 1999 oil on linen that is also untitled, cartoonish animals in human poses in the front of the picture glance warily back at a creature emerging from the water. A loosely painted grid is a key element of the background.

The imagery Gillis chooses has a disturbing quality, which is also something of a specialty for Neumann, once called the "grandmother of the new wave" because she was among the first local artists to embrace neo-expressionism. Much of what would later be seen in the 1980s was anticipated by Neumann pieces such as 1979's "Gorilla Graffiti," an oil, oil pastel and glitter on paper. Her more recent "Mnemnoe," an oil on canvas from a few years ago (but incorrectly dated 1999), is typical of her later work, with its dark and murky palette and its crude details. Both pieces have been clearly divided into top and bottom, showcasing Newmann's interest in difficult and awkward compositions.

Neumann's style is closest to that of Suzy Roesler. Four of Roesler's pieces have been included, serving as an ad hoc memorial. Roesler, the longtime force behind the Artists Registry, died on May 24 after a brief bout with cancer.

John Fudge is another artist, like Neumann, who was widely influential on younger artists in the Denver scene. But his style is distinctly different from Neumann's. Whereas Neumann's subjects are highly abstracted and expressively painted, Fudge takes an almost photographic approach, using smooth crisp brushwork to create his neo-surrealist compositions. A piece like Fudge's "2001-A Shoe Oddity," a 1977 oil on canvas that depicts a high-heel shoe in outer space, provided the example for an entire generation of young neo-surrealists here in town. Fudge's 1994 "Bob and Teenager Connie in Tibet," an acrylic on canvas, has the accurately rendered travelers bathed in spooky darkness. Unlikely juxtapositions and the aura of mystery, or even doom, first seen in Fudge's work became a leitmotif of the 1980s for a score of artists.

Marilyn Duke takes an entirely different tactic from any of the other early Spark members. Her early pieces, as well as her most recent efforts, are part of the hyper-realist movement, which included photo-realism. In 1979's "White Stage," a chalk and pastel on paper, Duke records a landscape of flowers with a rabbit in the foreground and mountain and sky in the background. Every square inch of the drawing is crammed with carefully filled-in details. This precise approach is also seen in her just-completed "A View of Denver," which envisions the city as being replaced by the pristine high plains on which it was built.

Twentieth Anniversary Celebration is an auspicious event. The intelligent, if crammed, show doesn't just provide a history lesson; it makes a vital contribution, because the ideas that spawned Spark are still relevant to current events.

Twentieth Anniversary Celebration, through August 1, at the Spark Gallery, 1535 Platte Street, 303-455-4435.

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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