Spark Gallery is the city’s oldest still-active artist co-operative; it was started by a bunch of Boulder emigres in late 1979, just a month or so before the launch of Pirate, which is often thought to be Denver's first co-op. So Spark is marking its fortieth birthday this year, and its current members decided to toast the founders, as well as other earlier Spark-sters, with a pair of exhibits this summer. The first, Spark Gallery 40th Anniversary Show, Part I, is open now; Part II opens on August 1.
A committee of members and past members put the exhibitions together, and the first one represents a history lesson on local vanguard art of a generation or so ago. Sadly, no historic narrative has been put together to explain how Spark came together, so viewers are left to figure things out on their own. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: History Colorado ought to be recording the reminiscences of the founding members, most of whom are happily still alive, some of them the key contemporary artists to emerge in Colorado in the late twentieth century.
I wasn’t in Denver when Spark was founded, but over the years, I’ve learned (and even surmised) quite a bit. First, it was named for Margaret Neumann’s dog, Sparky. Second, it was the ultimate conclusion of a chain of events that form a dotted line through Colorado's contemporary art scene. Among its direct antecedents are Drop City, the Armory Group, Criss-Cross and Boulder’s Edge Gallery (no connection to the co-op now in Lakewood). Taken together, these connections demonstrate how important Spark was — and is — to the big picture of this state’s contemporary art history.
Though no particular style defined the efforts of Spark's founders, several of them were concerned with mathematically derived compositions — typically patterns, but also more complex axiomatic images. That’s certainly the case with Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Charles DiJulio, Jerry Johnson, Marilyn Nelson and the nearly forgotten spiritual mentor to all of them, George Woodman. Sculptor Andy Libertone is doing something related but clearly different, though he has the same taste for hard edges as the others. (Libertone was an early guiding light for Spark, and lived above the co-op's first location, at West 32nd Avenue and Osage Street.) There were also founders who embraced a range of representational approaches, from neo-expressionist Neumann to realist John Fudge and even artists creating work with a cartoonish tilt, exemplified by Paul Gillis. His stunning if idiosyncratic “Untitled” is one of the show’s standouts.
Rule Gallery is now located just a block south of Spark at 808 Santa Fe Drive. Rule had been at 530 Santa Fe, but that spot is owned by Mary Mackey, and she decided to open her own gallery there, Urban Mud. The new Rule space had been 808 Projects, an ad hoc exhibition venue that was already finished out as a proper gallery, making it a great place for Rule to land. The inaugural show here is Joe Clower: Paintings, and it's a perfect segue from the ’60s-’70s crowd at Spark, because Clower was part of that same group in Boulder. Unlike the Spark founders, though, Clower didn't move to Denver four decades ago; instead, he went to Los Angeles, though eventually he wound wind up back in Colorado.
The show comprises older paintings as well as more recent works on paper. Astoundingly, Clower was so far ahead of the pack and everything looks so fresh and new, the pieces could have been done just last month. His distinctive style includes simple compositions, sometimes with cartoonish conventionalized depictions of recognizable things reduced to their most minimal expression. A good example is “Roadside Scene,” in which a flying saucer glides over a ziggurat pyramid; the monument, in rich shades of green, is set against a taxicab yellow. “Chaos Hell of Ecstasy,” in enamel on tin panels that have been tiled over a wooden board, has a neo-classical air, with a partly hidden colonnade and what looks like a section of iron fence. The palette is fire-engine red against black and white. These colors are so sharp and clean, and the painting has such a contemporary feel, it’s surprising to learn that it was painted more than twenty years ago.
In contrast to the paintings, the watercolors, nearly all of which are untitled, have atmospheric qualities, and the renderings are much less flat. Clower employs more emphatic representational devices, like shadowing, with these to further the illusion of three-dimensional space. In one there’s an old-timey skyscraper, in another a propeller mounted on a tower. This very strong and compelling solo is a great start for Rule's new location.
Over on East 17th Avenue, Leon Gallery has a solo with very recent work by an emerging artist who comes from an entirely different place, both aesthetically and actually: Expertly Paired: Ramiro Smith Estrada. These quirky oil-on-canvas paintings have a pop-surrealist vibe; Ramiro Smith Estrada painted them over the past few months in his studio in Buenos Aires. While the artist lives in Argentina, this summer he’s had a Denver residency, his third in the Mile High City (he's previously been hosted by RedLine and Taxi), and the Leon show is an added perk, his first solo in the United States.
The show’s title is meant to touch on what the artist is doing in the paintings, which is juxtaposing different images, but despite the inherent duality implied by the word “paired,” Smith Estrada instead assembles a multitude of different images in the same piece. The artist is very into appropriation, and he told me with a laugh that “Expertly Paired” is a slogan used by Kraft Cheese.
To make his portraits, the predominant form in this show, Smith Estrada photographs people, including himself, then alters the pictures with photo programs. These become the studies for the paintings. Smith Estrada then obliterates the faces of the sitters, though he sometimes leaves in elements, like the eyes behind the goggles of the woman depicted in “Aspen Forest,” or the floating mouth relocated from the woman’s face in “Roman Rebelle.” He also drapes the faces and the full figures in found patterns; in several, these are all-over vegetal and floral motifs reminiscent of vintage drapes or wallpaper. The paintings also incorporate text, making them evocative of posters. The writing is hard to read, though, because the words are partly obscured by the figures and other elements of the paintings — and also because in one, the text is in Cyrillic, and in another, Hebrew.
Smith Estrada says that the reason he hides the identity of the models by masking their faces is so that his paintings stand in opposition to the narcissism of selfie culture as exemplified by social media. Good luck fighting that.
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The shows at Spark, Rule and Leon take us from 1970s Boulder to 21st-century Buenos Aires, and it's a journey worth taking right here in town, right now.
Spark 40th Anniversary Show, Part I, through July 28, Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-889-2200, sparkgallery.com.
Joe Clower: Paintings, through August 10, Rule Gallery, 808 Santa Fe Drive, 303-800-6776, rulegallery.com.
Ramiro Smith Estrada: Expertly Paired, through August 10, Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue, 303-832-1599, leongallery.com.