Art Review

The Five Best Denver Art Shows of 2015 — And Two Are Still Open

Considering the cornucopia of art venues in the Denver area — galleries, art centers, museums, artist-cooperatives, pop-ups, and even wide hallways — and the hundreds of exhibits presented inside them over the last year, it comes as no surprise that the Mile High City is starting to get some real traction as an art city. As I think back over the exhibits that were presented during the last year, five have lingered in my mind’s eye. Two featured the work of Colorado artists, while two others showcased nationally-known Western artists, and one highlighted a New York artist. The first laid some groundwork for the art history of Denver’s recent past, the second celebrated Rocky Mountain National Park’s centennial, the third featured an artist who changed the way we see American Indian art, the fourth, an artist who combined digital technology with folk art influences, and the fifth and last, an artist who became an “overnight” success after working at it for thirty years.

RetroActive: Founding Spark
Pirate Contemporary Art

The current Denver art scene, especially the alternative scene, traces its origins back to the 1970s with a group of artists at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The groupl initially came together to found Edge Gallery, a co-opo with no relation to the the gallery in Denver of the same name. In 1979, a group of those Boulder-Edge-sters moved to Denver and opened what was the city’s first co-op, Spark Gallery, which is still going. The heretofore untold story of this golden era was contained in RetroActive: Founding Spark at Pirate last winter, a show that was organized by Rule Gallery. Most of the founders were represented by an early work paired with a recent piece, and entire thing was fascinating. The show included works by Clark Richert, Margaret Neumann, Jerry Johnson, Andy Libertone, Paul Gillis, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Kallweit, Charles DiJulio, George Woodman and many others. I hope this exhibit will lead to a proper art history show documenting that storied time in the Mile High City.

Trine Bumiller: 100 Paintings for 100 Years
McNichols Building

The McNichols Building, currently closed for renovations, is a mixed bag of an exhibition venue, with the large spaces on the upper floors being somewhat difficult to use. For one thing, there are too many windows, and for another, it was typically a crap-shoot as to whether you’d be allowed in at any given time. Compounding this problem was that fact that some shows have had ridiculously short runs. That was the case last summer with Trine Bumiller: 100 Paintings for 100 Years. Bumiller, a highly-regarded Denver artist, had taken on a residency at Rocky Mountain National Park. During her time there, she relentlessly sketched the majestic views around her. Knowing the park was celebrating its centennial, Bumiller did one hundred paintings based on these sketches; they were meant to celebrate the park’s 100 years of existence. Of varying widths, all of these paintings had the same height, and were hung at the same level around the enormous room so, all together, they appeared to be a magical stripe. Large and ambitious offerings like this one have been the standard fare at McNichols, so let’s hope that continues after the place has been spiffed up.

Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980
Denver Art Museum
New Mexico painter Fritz Scholder was a hot property in the ‘70s and ‘80s, known for his unique blend of figural abstraction, pop art and neo-expressionism, all of which seemed right-on-time. Add to that the fact that he was an American Indian, as were his most famous subjects, and that this was the same time as when the first Native American political movements were getting off the ground. So Scholder became a complex symbol for contemporary art with a Southwestern twist. By the ‘90s, however, the Southwestern aesthetic had fallen out of fashion, and so too had Scholder’s work. But now, posthumously, he’s back on top, as is showcased in the wonderful Super Indian: Fritz Scholder 1967-1980, which is still on display at the DAM. The exhibit was put together by Native Arts curator John Lukavic and is anchored by a raft of monumental paintings promised as gifts to the museum from mega-collectors Kent and Vicki Logan; it was supplemented by loans from across the country.

John Buck
Robischon Gallery

Last summer, the third rendition of Denver’s Biennial of the Americas came and went, and I can barely recall it. But at the same time, Robischon Gallery put on John Buck an eponymous solo meant to be an unofficial part of the festivities (since Buck is married to Deborah Butterfield, who was being showcased at the Gardens). And that's a show I will never forget. Montana-based Buck is best known for his gigantic and meticulously-crafted woodblock prints featuring enigmatic imagery broadly inspired by things found in nature or on well-established cultural icons. The show included a nice selection of these, along with his related sculptures, both free-standing and wall-mounted. But you might not have noticed any of this given the visual charisma of the stars of this solo, Buck’s five outrageous automatons, four of which were monumental. They represented a body of work Buck’s been laboring on for the last ten years. What Buck did with these automatons was to turn elaborately composed wooden sculptures into performance pieces that moved via hidden electronics. The show was a huge hit, so presumably many will recall it as fondly as I do.

Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty
MCA Denver

This over-the-top retrospective, which is still open, is a worthy followup to last year’s Mark Mothersbaugh show. As with that earlier effort, all three levels of MCA were given over to the work of a single artist, in this case Marilyn Minter. Back in the ‘70s, Minter was an up-and-coming art star, and then she got lost in the East Village punk scene of the 1980s. It would be at the end of that decade that she’d get rediscovered by Bill Arning who served as co-curator for the MCA show, along with Elissa Auther. As strange as it may seem, it’s apparent that Minter’s pieces are more in line with today’s sensibilities in contemporary art than they were a few decades ago. That’s because of the way she embraces a post-feminist sensibility that conflates high fashion with porn, celebrating both. The show is made up of her tremendous paintings, her gorgeous photos, her impressive wall-papers and her captivating videos.
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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