Words, just like art objects, are subject to fashion. Suddenly everyone is using the word "venerable" or mouthing a phrase like "narrative content." Everywhere I go these days, artists, especially those associated with the alternative scene, are talking about a "critical mass"--or, more properly, the lack of one in Denver's art scene.

These naysayers may have a point when it comes to sculpture or installation, where Denver has few first-rate participants. But their trendy shibboleth is easily dismissed with regard to media such as painting, ceramics or, in particular, photography. Local artists are especially active in photography that exists on the margins of the field: pinhole photography and photograms on the primitive side, photocopying and computer-generated prints on the high-tech end.

Talk about a "critical mass"--photographer David Sharpe has reached one all by himself. Sharpe's photos and photo constructions are the subject of two current shows: Time in Reflection, at Zip 37 Gallery, and Recent Pinhole Photography, in the front space at Spark Gallery. Both exhibits display closely related primitive photographs, but the Spark show is bolder and more adventurous, featuring as it does Sharpe's very latest pieces.

In Time in Reflection, Sharpe displays enlargements of his pinhole photographs of the landscape. He uses homemade cameras as simple in some cases as an oatmeal box with a pinhole pricked in the side. The pinhole acts as a lens; the film is placed inside, opposite the tiny opening. It was exactly this kind of camera that was used to create "Boyer's Chute, Missouri River"; in fact, the curvature of the cylindrical container is recorded on the horizon. That inverted arc is only one of the strong geometric elements dominating the photograph. Trees and twigs also contribute linear elements, which are multiplied by their mirrored reflections in the water.

The Spark show includes enlargements of Sharpe's landscapes. But it also features more recent photographs, which have been assembled according to linked visual elements; a twig in one photo, for instance, is connected to another twig in a different photo. In "South Platte," the river itself has been rerouted according to Sharpe's aesthetic program. More conceptual is a hieratic arrangement of ten mountain scenes in "Lean to the Right: Near the Continental Divide." These photo enlargements have been laid directly on the gallery's back wall, giving the piece, in Sharpe's words, a "physical presence."

It might be impossible to get more physical than Eric Havelock-Bailie does in The Intermingling of Contrary Fluids, a riveting and moving photo installation occupying Pirate Associates Space, the former back-room gift shop that's now clearly one of the city's most important art venues. Havelock-Bailie not only puts photos (if that's what they are) right on the wall, he puts them right on the floor, too--or lays them across fluorescent tubes, or hangs them on wires.

In some cases, what look like color photos are actually the product of Havelock-Bailie "painting" with developers or fixers. Other works are the result of the artist "printing" on exposed photographic paper with his own body or the body of a female model. Subjecting naked flesh to photographic chemicals may seem like a high-risk activity--which dovetails perfectly with the real topic of the installation, AIDS. Specifically, Havelock-Bailie is concerned with the AIDS death of influential Denver photographer Wes Kennedy, who was his close friend.

Havelock-Bailie addresses his topic via semiotics, a linguistic and literary pursuit that has been widely embraced by many visual artists in the last decade, doubtless owing to its focus on the importance of signs. Such a scholarly approach could easily have obscured Havelock-Bailie's meanings; instead, the semiotic framework serves to enrich the visual experience, helping to explain works that, Havelock-Bailie acknowledges, can be taken "half a dozen ways."

In "Artist Statement," which Havelock-Bailie created in collaboration with Delanie Jenkins, a notebook is placed below a pair of photo-chemical prints depicting Havelock-Bailie's buttocks. The notebook includes pages that have been smeared with what might be blood, as well as pages to which evocative objects such as thread or corn silk have been attached. Interspersed in the notebook (and elsewhere in the show) are six photographic portraits of Kennedy taken by Havelock-Bailie only weeks before his death in 1993.

The portraits, some of which show Kennedy with his hands shielding his winnowed face and hollow eyes, marked a turning point in Havelock-Bailie's career. In this show, they function as a leitmotif. They're supplemented by other photos in which Havelock-Bailie believes he has found what he calls "instances of the patina of death," like a shot of Paul Robeson's star on Hollywood Boulevard. For a pair of photos that appear in "Artist Statement," Havelock-Bailie achieved what he calls a "Pollock-like aspect" by throwing the developer "as hard as I could at the paper." The gesture was meant to physically express the sentiments scrawled in colored pencil below the photos: "My grief over his death could not help but include elements of rage."

Havelock-Bailie says his anger extends to those who have told him to "get over" Kennedy's death. "I never will get over it," he says. Perhaps those who have used Kennedy's death as an opportunity to knock off the late artist's distinctive style are the ones who need to get over his death--not Havelock-Bailie, whose work, unlike theirs, looks nothing like Kennedy's.

Looking nothing like anything seen before in Denver are the vivid computer-generated photographic prints by E.L. Helland that make up E'Scapes, in the main space at Pirate. With these new works, Helland has literally "drawn" photos of imaginary landscapes, using two different rendering programs and a Macintosh computer. "These 3-D programs allow the realization of dreams," he says. "I create the lighting and the atmosphere. So there's no real subject." The resulting dreamscapes, all of which are untitled, feature natural coloring, but, notes Helland, "not too natural." And the color isn't the only clue we're given that what we're seeing exists nowhere else: In one photo, several different mountain ranges share the same sky.

Like Sharpe and Havelock-Bailie, Helland brings home the point that Denver has achieved "critical mass" in the realm of cutting-edge photography. And that's not to mention Shaun Gothwaite's Polaroids and Diana prints also at Zip 37 or the abstract color photos by Barbara Carpenter now on view at Core New Art Space. The fall season is just under way, but already it's crowded with fine work by both photographers and artists who put a new twist on photographic techniques.

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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