Many galleries around town are trying new strategies to keep their doors open. While Space Gallery and ATC/DEN make the numbers crunch in high-flying, high-rent Denver by moonlighting as for-hire event spaces, Leon Gallery and FooLPRoof Contemporary Art have come up with even more creative ideas.
Leon is in the process of transitioning from a commercial gallery, which it’s been for the past seven years, into a nonprofit space. Since Leon has always specialized in edgy fare — often the work of emerging artists that has limited commercial potential — going nonprofit seems a prudent move, particularly because the space presents concerts, poetry readings and performances as well as art shows. The move also frees up co-directors Eric Nord and Eric Dallimore to do whatever they want as curators, without having to bow to the economic pressures of the market.
Leon’s current show, which runs into the new year, is re: mix/Paintings by Cymon Padilla, a spectacular debut solo by a Colorado artist who’s relatively unknown in Denver, though he’s been showing in his home town of Colorado Springs for the better part of the past five years. In these meticulously crafted, pop-surrealist paintings, the artist writes, he mashes up “classical European figurative work with the golden age of Disney, Saturday morning cartoons, pop art and vintage advertising.” At first glance, the pieces look like collages for which Padilla has cut up magazines, art books and comics. But when you examine the compositions more closely, you realize that they’re actually traditionally done oil paintings — which is pretty amazing, when you consider the high level of control that Padilla has over his brushes. According to Nord, Padilla creates virtual collages on computer screens, cutting pieces out of famous or otherwise noteworthy images, then pastes them together in unexpected ways. The results are completely different from any of the initial sources he’s tapped, yet each of the appropriated elements retains its recognizable identity. Preserving the distinctive aspects of these image fragments provides key pictorial information regarding the content and subject matter of the work.
In “Lost at Sea,” Padilla has collapsed a set of images into a singular one — of sorts. Floating on the surface of the sea is a hyperrealist photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s famous fountain, an inverted urinal created in 1917, one of the first conceptual artworks ever made. Sitting in the urinal is a dead-on reproduction of the cartoon character Stimpy, the dumb but good-natured cat from The Ren & Stimpy Show. To add more edge, Stimpy’s lovable face has been switched out for that of Picasso’s cubo-surrealist “Weeping Woman,” conveyed through a tangle of lines that abstractly evoke lamentations complete with conventionalized tears. The piece is a knockout, intelligently thought out and well made.
The same is true of everything else in this show. Other paintings also resolve disparate images into a single form. In “Autopoiesis,” for example, Padilla has constructed a figure that’s one part SpongeBob, one part Rodin’s “Thinker” and one part Disney’s Pinocchio. There are a couple of extra classical arms thrown in for good measure, one of which is punching Pinocchio in the face. The whole show is very strong, and though Leon’s new goal aims to eschew the marketplace, Padilla’s stuff looks very sellable.
Another gallery experimenting with new business strategies is FooLPRoof, which is presenting its third exhibit, COLDPLAY. The RiNo gallery is the brainchild of artist Laura Phelps Rogers, whose initials inspired the unusual capitalization in its name.
Rogers is a former member of Pirate, where she exhibited her often room-sized installations made of cast-metal elements and old furniture — the former reflecting her sculpture training at the University of Colorado Denver, where she earned a BFA, the latter her twenty-year-plus career as a South Broadway antiques dealer. After closing her shop more than a dozen years ago, she purchased this building on Larimer Street when the neighborhood was run-down and sometimes dangerous. “A lot of people thought I was nuts and tried to talk me out of it,” recalls Rogers. Now, of course, the area is known as a center of hipster culture. “You can’t believe how many people are tourists from out of town who come in to see the gallery. All the travel writers are saying RiNo is the place for art in Denver, and people are listening,” says Rogers.
For the gallery, she devised an unusual business model: part artist cooperative, part traditional commercial gallery. Contemporary artists vetted by Rogers are given the opportunity to exhibit in group shows in exchange for a fee paid for a specific wall or area. This is very similar to the system in a co-op, in which members’ dues are exchanged for exhibition slots...only FooLPRoof is much cheaper because there are no monthly dues.
FooLPRoof also has a separate community gallery in the back, and additional programming includes pop-ups and other art-related happenings. “I want to see if artists can make a space work financially in RiNo,” says Rogers, “coming up with the money to just pay for the space itself, the rent, property taxes and utilities, because I don’t take any salary for myself at this point in exchange for running it.”
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This financial formula could be workable, but can it give rise to a credible art show? Against all odds, the answer is affirmative, judging from COLDPLAY. Part of Rogers’s success comes from her wide connections in the city’s alternative scene, as well as in the world of metal casting and iron pours. There are many familiar artists in this show, including Louis Recchia, Zoa Ace, Phil Bender and Charles Parson. The trio of marvelous cream-colored ceramic totems by Gayla Lemke are standouts, as are the sculpture of a green patinated disk in a scruffy brown armature by David Lobdell and an incredibly realistic landscape drawing of the mountains by Caroline Peters. There are also some great pieces by emerging artists, none more impressive than Eric Anderson’s trio of dark and moody abstract paintings, which are drop-dead stunning.
The creative approach of Nord and Dallimore at Leon, like that of Rogers at FooLPRoof, could keep galleries going in the brave new world of today’s Denver. Let’s wish them luck.
Cymon Padilla, through January 19, Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue, 303-832-1599, leongallery.com.
COLDPLAY, through January 26, FooLPRoof Contemporary Art, 3240 Larimer Street, 303-641-3472,