Open and Closed

It's tempting to compare Denver's vibrant alternative art scene to a circus. But that wouldn't be fair to circuses, which have only three rings, as well as an underlying organization and theme. The alternative scene, on the other hand, is governed by anarchy. Literally anything goes at the co-op galleries or ad-hoc art spaces that loosely define this realm.

Reflecting this riotous state of affairs is the annual Open Show sponsored by the Alternative Arts Alliance, the Denver organization that attempts to rule the unruly. Anyone who wants to can have work included in this yearly exercise. And the most recent incarnation, like its eight predecessors, was absolutely terrible. Even the good things looked bad, and many of the more than 400 works included were better suited to a landfill.

Thank goodness, then, that the Alternative Arts Alliance has also sponsored The Traveling Show, this year's version of the excellent juried presentations that for the last four or five years have come out of the non-juried fiascoes. The exhibit ends its stay at Denver's Art Department Gallery on Friday before moving on to Boulder, Fort Collins and the Western Slope.

The responsibility for selecting the work that constitutes The Traveling Show fell to a jury made up of Kathy Andrews, curator at the Arvada Center, Carol Keller, director of the Emmanuel Gallery, and regionally celebrated artist Tony Ortega. And we owe them a debt of gratitude for having the courage to take on the arduous task--and the almost unimaginable hardship--of having to carefully sift through everything in the Open Show to find forty-some works worthy of a separate exhibit.

The most obvious theme of The Traveling Show is the vitality of contemporary painting in the metro area. Though it's hardly an encyclopedic survey of current trends, it does map out a huge territory that includes techniques ranging from precision displays to messy expressions and an array of styles from representational to abstract.

Some paintings, like Dean Habegger's superb "Tangled Lifelines," an acrylic on four vertical panels of plywood, have it all. Habegger's painting is simultaneously precise and fuzzy, and representational elements have been combined with abstract ones. The principal pictorial device he uses is a meandering, full-bodied line, which in some places looks like rope, in other places like a serpent, and still elsewhere like the roots or branches of a tree. The painting, one of a series Habegger displayed last year at Core, also features an effect that suggests an aged surface. He accomplished this by applying the paint and then rubbing some of it off, leaving telltale traces buried in the folds of the plywood's grain.

Steve Alarid also uses lines as his principal subject and has also been experimenting with creating a distinctive painterly surface. But in his oil painting "Untitled" (part of a series he showed last year at Pirate), he has built up the pigments rather than wearing them away, as Habegger does. Alarid lays down a dark, murky ground of blues, greens and reds that have been applied vigorously in order to create a three-dimensional surface. Then, with short, delicate lines in gold, turquoise and pink, he creates a dense, swirling maze or web. The result has a decorative quality that recalls the art of Edward Marecak, a master of the painted pattern who worked in Denver from the 1950s until his death in 1993.

Another painter who repeats shapes to create larger patterns is John Crandall. But Crandall's influence lies much further afield, in the aboriginal art of Australia and New Zealand. "Dangerous Nanorikon Male," an acrylic on linen from his Pirate show last fall, depicts a nebulous creature and two lizards. Crandall's color choices are particularly becoming: a burnt orange and dry yellow predominate, and the details are picked out in black and red.

Not wholly unrelated to the hybrid trend that Habegger, Alarid and Crandall embrace are a group of standout paintings that illustrate the continuing appeal of academic surrealism to three of the area's most sophisticated painters.

William Stockman's enormous oil on canvas "Untitled (In Memorium)," a collective title he has applied to all the paintings in a series first seen last year at Pirate, reveals a landscape at dusk. The dark sepia sky that takes up a good deal of the composition is filled with stars done in black paint and gold leaf. Constellations have been outlined in the form of conventionalized figures. In the middle of the painting, ghostly children embrace an unconscious Felix the Cat. This is a very creepy painting, and very well done.

"Time Gentlemen Time," by Whitney Snow, is a meticulous sidewalk scene crowded with enigmatic figures and architectural elements. Like Stockman's painting, the piece is infused with a tension between traditional technique and contemporary subject matter. And the lively, big-city street corner depicted by Snow recalls the art of the 1930s. Among the actors on the busy corner are a gay couple who point to a street preacher, a bike racer on a bike with square tires, Raggedy Ann assaulting Raggedy Andy, and a cheesecake model posing for a movie director. The painting has both the raucous feel embraced by American scene painters like Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus and the sense for unlikely associations among the subjects seen in the work of Peter Blume, the pioneer of American surrealism.

Christopher Lewis, who often has combined sculpture and painting, does so in a very subtle way with "Seizure's Companion," an oil on two found metal panels. These large panels have been precut with screw holes, which form a linear pattern in the painting. Lewis has taped off the edges of the painting to reveal the scrap metal underneath, providing a border that acts like a frame. A figure outfitted as a knight appears in the top panel, while a nude and a tiger take up residence in the bottom panel.

While surrealism is well-represented in The Traveling Show, there are surprisingly few examples of neo-expressionism, a style that has taken center stage at alternative spaces for the last decade. Not so surprising is that among the few neo-expressionist paintings that do appear are a pair by the Adam and Eve of the alternative world--Louis Recchia and Zoa Ace.

Recchia is represented by a gigantic oil on canvas, "Opposites Attract," which has been reprised from last year's Pirate show. His hallmark bright colors and confident lines are used to put full-length portraits of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Napoleon against a background of wrecked houses and the sea. Silhouettes of a woman with a cat and a man in a dunce cap supplement the drama. Ace's "Dance Floor," an easel-sized oil on canvas, also employs the brazen brushwork and the colors of neo-expressionism--in this case, radiant pinks, yellows and blues.

Another category that seems underrepresented here is abstract painting. But Sue Simon's splendid "Chaos TheoryE" makes up for the shortage all by itself. Math, a subject Simon tackled in her solo show last year at Core, remains her current inspiration. An equation runs across the bottom of this painting, an acrylic on unstretched canvas that is mostly silver with black and white gestural scribbles.

Though The Traveling Show is dominated by painting, quite a few artists who work on paper and in mixed media are represented. One of the most gorgeous pieces in the show is a charcoal, pastel and flashe drawing by Rick Visser called "Evoking InstancesE#2." Visser uses zigzags of charcoal to create geometric shapes that are filled in with colors--most pointedly the primaries of red, yellow and blue--and then set against an ecru field.

Also outstanding are works by Mark Friday, Roland Bernier, Linde Schlumbohm, Joe Higgins and Peggy McGivern. Friday's "Electro," a mixed-media wall piece, incorporates screen prints with found elements unified by an expressionist layer of paint; Bernier also does wonders with mechanical imagery in his "Shirtaqua," one of a series previously seen at the Mackey Gallery. Schlumbohm's autobiographical mixed-media collage "My Education: The New York Years" combines images of food with images of self, while Higgins's quirky monotype "STZM" pairs imagery with text. McGivern's beautifully conceived "Woman's Homecoming Vessel," an acrylic and pastel on paper, is equally dynamic. It might be a picture of a tree--but maybe there's a corpse there, too.

Nearly all of the artists chosen for The Traveling Show are well-known in the contemporary art community and don't need The Open Show to display their work. Most, in fact, appear frequently, not only in alternative spaces but in commercial galleries. But they've chosen to participate to show support for the Alliance--which is increasingly beleaguered and can use all the help it can get.

The Traveling Show, through March 22 at the Art Department Gallery, 772 Santa Fe Drive, 892-0352.

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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