There’s always good reason to catch a Phil Bender solo at Pirate: Contemporary Art, but the current effort, straightforwardly titled Phil Bender, has the added attraction of being thoroughly poignant. Though not Pirate’s last show, it will be Bender’s last at the co-op’s longtime home in northwest Denver, which the group will soon leave. But before I get to that sad story, I want to celebrate Bender and his remarkable accomplishments in making Pirate a principal mover in Denver’s art world, helping to turn the corner of West 37th Avenue and Navajo Street into a small but significant art district.
Bender was one of seven artists who founded Pirate back in January 1980, and he's the only one of them who's stuck with it. Pirate was started just a month or so after a bunch of Boulder ex-pats founded Spark, though the two groups were unaware of each other at the time. In those days, the Denver art scene was pretty bare-bones, and the impetus for establishing co-operative galleries owned and operated by a collective of artists was to provide exhibition opportunities that were otherwise unavailable in town. And that’s how it’s worked.
After bouncing around a bit, in 1982 Pirate landed on Navajo Street; the group has been presenting shows by its members and others ever since. A roster of the artists who’ve been Pirate members over the years is close to a who’s who of contemporary art in Denver during the past several decades; many current and former Pirates have had significant art careers. That’s certainly the case with Bender, who has work in many important collections, including at the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Convention Center. He was also given a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2011.
Bender’s approach is deceptively simple: He takes found objects he’s collected from flea markets and junk shops and arranges them into grids. In each work, the ready-made elements are either similar or identical. His approach has a neo-dada edge, but with repetition defining the compositions, he also tips his hat to pattern-making.
Bender's current Pirate exhibit is extremely restrained and sparely installed by his established standards, perhaps given the impending relocation; this austerity reflects the somberness of the occasion. One standout is “Presidents,” a five-by-five grid comprised of oval cut-outs of presidential portraits on newsprint that starts with Washington and ends with Nixon, with many left out in between. Bender “borrows” the images but recasts them within his established vocabulary.
But Bender only rarely appropriates images; instead, he often takes utilitarian objects and transforms them into art materials. In “Fan Covers,” the wire screens from exhaust fans are converted into op-art polka dots. The pièce de résistance of this particular group is “Patsy Pizza Pans,” nine old pizza pans from the legendary Patsy’s Inn, a red-sauce Italian place that had occupied the space right next door for nearly a century. So “Patsy Pizza Pans” is not only a pattern of silver disks that’s clever and elegant, but also a historic narrative about the rapid rate of change hitting this neighborhood and many others. And now, just as Patsy's left last year, Pirate will go, too.
When Pirate opened in this location, the neighborhood was pretty rough; you might have had your car broken into while you were catching a show there, as happened to me once. But over the years the area changed, and by the ’90s, it was a pretty stable Latino neighborhood with a smattering of artists. Then just a few years ago, the gentrification of Highland reached this block, with fancy new houses and townhouses climbing the hill on Navajo and coming right up to the front doors of the diminutive art district. When this happened, the value of the buildings soared, as did their property-tax liabilities. Finally, the owners of nearly the entire group of storefronts at the north end of the block, Reed Weimer and Chandler Romeo (who are artists themselves, onetime Pirate members and also recipients of the Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts), had to raise the rents of the co-ops as their leases expired.
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Last December, Edge, a co-op that had occupied its space across from Pirate for over twenty years, moved out and went on hiatus. On April 3, Next, located in a corner space that had once been part of Pirate, moved out with the goal of reopening in the 40 West area of Lakewood. Pirate’s lease ran out at the end of March, so the co-op is operating on a month-to-month arrangement that’s only slightly higher than its previous rent and with the ordinary stipulation that should the place be leased to a new tenant, Pirate will need to move out in a month’s time. The co-op has been looking for a spot; Bender hopes to find something in Denver. (Zip 37, another co-op, plans to stay on Navajo as long as possible; the Bug Theater will remain a permanent fixture.)
These dislocations are part of a bigger story in which Denver’s art scene is washing away at the bottom — and the city doesn't seem to be doing much of anything to stem the tide.
So this time, there are several good reasons to see Bender's show before it closes on April 16. The art itself is worthwhile, but it's also a chance to say farewell to the alternative scene in its present form — and remember what brought us to this point.
Pirate: Contemporary Art is located — for the time being — at 3655 Navajo. Call 303-909-5748 or go to pirateartonline.org for more information.