Review: Outside in 303 tells a real west side story

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Outside in 303, the main summer feature at the Museo de las Americas, is absolutely spectacular, and makes a real contribution to local art literacy by revealing a scene of Latino taggers that has been more or less hidden from the rest of the art world -- though their efforts have been visible on the streets and in the railyards. See also: Over-the-top Tom Wesselman show is a rare treat at the DAM Outside in 303 was conceived and organized by Museo director Maruca Salazar. "A bunch of kids came to me -- they're in their twenties and thirties, but I still think of them as kids -- and they said, 'What about us?,' and they were right," says Salazar. "They deserved a show, and I decided to give them one." Salazar brought in Gwen Chanzit, curator of modern art at the Denver Art Museum, to tap her expertise. Most important, Chanzit told Salazar that each artist needed to be represented by some major effort, and Salazar clearly followed her advice: Each of the included artists has lots of space in which to stretch out.

To determine those artists, Salazar compiled a list of seventeen people who qualified under the show's premise: All were younger Latinos who had come out of the graffiti scene centered on the west side. Salazar and Chanzit winnowed that initial list to the final seven. But the first large wall of the exhibit features a collaborative piece in which many of the artists who were not included applied their handles. The result, a gray field covered with scribbled marks, brings a sense of equality to the show and is a great way to start off Outside in 303.

Before I rhapsodize too much about the street cred of the selected artists, it's important to note that the majority of those included have transitioned from creating work on the exterior walls of buildings to creating pieces meant for the interior walls of galleries and museums. And though they all started learning how to make marks on the street, sharing and exchanging techniques and styles, most of them went on to study art formally.

Jack Avila has been given the ad hoc title of "street teacher"; he's slightly older than the other artists here and widely regarded as the mentor of the group. Fittingly, he's created one of the exhibit's genuine showstoppers, a mural that wraps around two walls and includes substantial installation elements, including a pile of debris in the corner and a lineup of tools encased in clear plastic vitrines set on the floor. This heroic piece mashes up graffiti writing styles with references to abstract expressionism, pop art and neo-dada, and it's fabulous. Too bad most of it is applied directly to the wall, and so will be sanded and painted over after the show closes.

The rawness of Avila's style is perfectly juxtaposed with the elegant works of Mario Zoots, one of the city's hottest up-and-coming artists. Zoots, who a couple of months ago earned an MFA at the University of Denver, has made a name for himself over the past few years via his signature collages that riff on dada. There's a cluster of these mostly small works included in the show, but a large mural titled "Without Hope, Without Fear," dominates his section. Zoots is interested in deconstructing culture, and that's easy to see in this mural, in which he makes any number of pop-cultural references, including the cartoony renditions of a dismembered mouth with its tongue sticking out, a coffin and a big human hand. Every part of the canvas is filled in with something to look at. The palette is remarkable, too, with Zoots limiting himself to black and white with some sickly shades of green, yellow and brown. As a result, it has a retro, midcentury-modern feel, but Zoots is referring to the kitsch end of the movement and not its high-style opposite. Despite that, the piece comes off -- as does everything I've seen by Zoots -- as super-sophisticated and extremely smart. Keep reading for more on Outside in 303. Also striking is the multi-part drawing on the adjacent wall by Josiah Lopez, who's also been getting noticed in the local scene lately. Lopez has rendered full-figure studies of the people in the neighborhood in a traditional realist style; the work has been assembled from separate sheets of paper arranged in a linear, constructivist way across the wall. Another multi-part piece, which incorporates a sculpture of the artist, his back turned to the viewer, comes out of a pop-art sensibility, with simple mask forms arranged in a grid.

Pop art, to a great extent absorbed through the ubiquitous advertising culture, is a principal source for many of the artists in Outside in 303 -- but none more so than Victoriano Rivera. His series of large and engaging portraits in spray paint are reminiscent of the comic-book-inspired renderings of Roy Lichtenstein and even Tom Wesselmann (who's the subject of a major retrospective right now at the DAM). I loved these paintings, especially the one depicting a teenager biting into a slice of pizza and the one of a sleeping girl: They're cool and funny at the same time.

More abstract and surreal but still very pop-y are the bright and crisply painted panels by "Kans 89," the nom de guerre of Josh Rogers. The artist is interested in combining fine-art materials like oil or acrylic with those associated with graffiti, such as spray paint and markers, and he sees his work as expressing his personal experience as an artist.

Though everything in the show has some Latino content, two of the artists create pieces that are thoroughly imbued with the Mexican-American experience in Denver. Javier Fidelis Flores contributes a horizontal abstract based on a Latino graffiti tag that looks like the kind of thing you'd find on a back wall or the side of a boxcar; his blown-up portraits of birds of prey have a decidedly Mexican character. Also nodding to Mexico are the beautiful wall installations by Gabriel Salazar. He begins each one by painting an all-over pattern of scribbles; then, in the center, he paints a stenciled geometric pattern in black. Affixed to each painted passage is a panel of papel picado, the pierced-paper "lace" associated with Mexican holidays.

Contemporary art is just one of the categories mentioned in the Museo's mission -- but for me, it's the most important one. So when I first heard about this show, I knew I couldn't miss it. You shouldn't, either.

Outside in 303 runs through November 24 at Museo de las Americas. For more information, call 303-571-4401 or go to museo.org.

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