Mind Bender

He's midway through his solo exhibit at the Close Range Gallery of the Denver Art Museum, but Phil Bender still acts embarrassed about all the attention. In fact, Bender's taken an "Aw, shucks" approach--which works perfectly with his thick Texas drawl--to the accolades heaped on his signature grids of found objects. But don't let that Texas accent fool you: Bender's as Denver as the Mint. And he's not embarrassed by the attention; he's reveling in it.

The well-known artist and art advocate arrived at the opening for the Phil Bender show on April 13 in a chauffeur-driven limousine, accompanied by his devoted mother. This was the proof--as though any were needed--that Bender was now the famous artist, at least locally, that he had long claimed to be. Artist Jennifer Melton, whom Bender describes as his "first ex-wife," recalls that even when she and Bender met in the mid-1970s, when both were art students in Dallas, her ex-husband was already using his by now familiar self-promoting slogan: "Phil Bender: Famous Artist."

And the phrase illustrated more than just Bender's shameless hubris. It also was a nod to his infatuation with neo-dada, a movement appearing out of the college art departments of the period that encouraged art students to do outrageous things like call themselves "famous."

As the name implies, neo-dada was a revival of the dada movement of the early twentieth century. And a guiding light for dada--as well as for Bender--was the Parisian artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp first set the art world on fire with his futurist masterpiece "Nude Descending a Staircase," a 1912 oil on canvas. (When the abstract painting was unveiled, in the famous Armory Show of 1913, a joke circulated that you could tell the class of viewers by what they were looking for--the aristocrats vainly searched to find the staircase, the working stiffs the nude.)

Duchamp relentlessly attacked presumptions about art and aesthetics, and in 1915, using the pseudonym "R. Mutt," he invented the ready-made art object. He entered a wall urinal in the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, an annual New York show that he had helped found. The piece was rejected, but Duchamp's point had been made--that art didn't need to be a painting or a sculpture but was whatever he said it was. In this way, he anticipated--even before the end of World War I--the conceptual movements that have dominated art's cutting edge since the 1970s.

Bender frequently cites Duchamp as his chief mentor, and it's easy to see why, since Bender's entire art career has been based on taking Duchamp's concepts and fleshing them out. Sometimes his work even makes witty comments on Duchamp's legacy. Bender's use of gameboards as elements in his assemblages, for example--especially chess- and checkerboards--refers to the celebrated and probably apocryphal story of Duchamp giving up painting completely in 1918 and devoting the rest of his long life (he died in 1967) to playing chess.

An early example of the use of gameboards in Bender's work is a 1978 diptych in which Bender paired a painting of a checkerboard with a real one. By this time, the artist was living and working in Denver. He had arrived with Melton in 1975 and soon after enrolled in the art program at Metro State College, an institution that has played an inordinately prominent role in the development of the local art scene.

In 1980, when Bender had just finished at Metro, he and a group of fellow students, including Melton and Paul Schroder, got an idea Bender described as coming right out of an old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie: "Let's use granddad's barn and put on a show." The result was Pirate, one of the region's oldest and most respected artists' co-operatives. (Bender has said that he was unaware that, slightly earlier, a group of University of Colorado students had founded Spark, the city's oldest co-op.) Bender soon became one of area's most recognized artists, as well as an art advocate of statewide renown.

In the early 1980s, Pirate was a whole art world away from the Denver Art Museum, which at that time had just launched a new space dedicated to artists working in the region, dubbing it the Close Range Gallery. The gallery, whose name was a play on Front Range, was a bone thrown by the DAM's Dianne Vanderlip to the howling dogs on the local art scene who were demanding that the museum pay more attention to their efforts. And if the DAM had never had a reputation for supporting local artists, Vanderlip, curator of what was then the museum's Contemporary Art department (it's since been renamed the Modern and Contemporary department) had all but ignored them.

But if the launching of Close Range was a small attempt by Vanderlip to make peace with the community, the emphasis was on "small"--the temporary and infrequent shows in Close Range were often put up in closet-sized spaces. That's why it was truly exciting last year when the extensive Stanton galleries on the museum's first floor were given over to the Modern and Contemporary department--the first time ever that modern and contemporary art had been afforded permanent exhibition space at the DAM. Among the Stanton rooms was included a wonderful space for Close Range. But during the first full year of the new fabulous Close Range digs, not a single Colorado artist got inside.

The reason? Curator Vanderlip had changed the gallery's mandate. Now artists were qualified for inclusion not only if they lived and worked in Colorado, but also if their art was on display here. That means, for example, that New York sculptor Mark di Suvero qualifies for a Close Range show--and so, too, does Robert Motherwell. This is absurd, and, not incidentally, it makes the distinction between Close Range and the rest of the museum meaningless. The department should drop this ridiculous policy and return Close Range to the community for which it was created in the first place.

And Close Range is meant for artists like Bender, who in his solo show has taken full advantage of the gallery's soaring space (the walls are some 24 feet high). His assemblages of hubcaps (a found material he first used in 1980) climb the full height of the space. They're arranged in a grid, placed at regular intervals to one another. Bender says he searches the city's streets and alleys looking for flattened hubcaps. "Each are nice by themselves, but when I put them all together, they're beautiful," he notes. A selection of rubber mudflaps from semi trucks are handled in the same way, and brought together on adjacent walls, the hubcaps and the mudflaps have a transcendent quality that recalls the altar screens of cathedrals.

Though Bender doesn't actually make the objects he uses in his assemblages, his approach still takes a lot of work. For instance, he says it took him "five or six years" to find enough Cypress souvenir boxes from the 1930s to make a grid. Other Bender grids are made from things like thermos bottles, record albums and gameboards for Chinese checkers. But no matter what he chooses, the work is signature Bender--so much so that one artist got into the prestigious Colorado 1990 show at the DAM by running a convincing fake by the selection jury. And speaking of fakes, a number of artists recently paid homage to Bender by knocking off his style in the Return to Bender fundraiser at Pirate, which was timed to coincide with his Close Range show.

Bender himself has an exhibit in place at Pirate, an offering that is really little more than an adjunct to his Close Range show. On display are more grids of record albums, mudflaps and hubcaps. But there's a little something different at Pirate: Bender has assembled a grid of hubcaps on the floor, an unusual approach for him. He even presents a few pieces that, rather than grids of found objects, are themselves found grids. He hangs a quilt, a patterned shower curtain and a fabric-sample board.

Comparing the shows at Close Range and Pirate, it's easy to see the essential role the museum plays in the city's art scene. It's not that the Pirate show is so different in content--the two exhibits are almost interchangeable--but that the DAM show carries with it a cachet that artists can get nowhere else in town. (And that's why it should be dedicated to only them.)

The point was well made with the Bender show, which generated tremendous media attention and word-of-mouth endorsements. With Bender, the czar of the alternative scene, ensconced in Close Range, the city's entire art community has been on a kind of high--even if some of the intoxication has been inspired more by envy than by Bender's triumph.

Phil Bender, through June 30 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

Phil Bender, through June 2 at Pirate, 3659 Navajo Street, 458-6058.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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