The National Western Stock Show is one of Denver’s great annual events, attracting visitors from all over the country. In addition to attractions such as livestock competitions and rodeo events, the Stock Show includes the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, which is typically dominated by traditional realist works with Western themes, though there are some exceptions. Denver artist Michael Dowling, a realist though not a traditional one, has been included in that show in the past, but had also long wanted to present an alternative exhibit more focused on contemporary art by local artists. His dream has been realized in True West, a pop-up in a venue dubbed the 1821 Blake Street Gallery.
In November, Dowling was given a small room there, a tiny retail spot that opens onto the trendy Dairy Block alley that runs from 18th to 19th streets, between Blake and Wazee. The space was completely empty, and Dowling's goal was to fill it with work he would create there during the month — and, of course, he filled it to capacity. It was during this residency that Dowling proposed the True West concept to the Dairy Block’s management, which went for the idea. In addition to the spot he'd used as his studio, Dowling was able to add an adjacent facility that includes an enormous main room with wide-plank wooden floors, exposed brick walls and a raw beamed ceiling. These finishes and the grand scale make the space reminiscent of the classic galleries of yore — think of a cross between IceCube and the old Pirate.
“I didn’t pick the works, but I picked the artists,” explains Dowling. “I just sent everyone a letter about what I wanted to do.” The letter went to over thirty artists that he'd chosen because they were “working within the broad notion of being in the West,” as well as four of the city's top commercial venues — K Contemporary, Leon Gallery, Walker Fine Art and Rule Gallery. In it, Dowling noted that the crowd in town for the National Western “consists of a population most in contact with our romantic notion of the West,” which was decidedly not the focus of his selected artists. “The only consideration we ask of the artists and galleries,” his letter continued, “is to consider our place and its history even if very abstractly in creating or selecting work."
Dowling's light touch in curating the show was highlighted by a rhetorical question he posited in the letter: “Artists and cowboys, what could go wrong?”
Not much, as evidenced by the resulting show. The best way to start is in the space off the alley where Dowling had his studio, which can serve almost as a shorthand version of the entire exhibit. You can’t miss the spectacular installation “King Me,” by Eric Dallimore, sitting in the middle of the room and practically filling it. The piece comprises wooden beams that have been set on end, their edges rounded and their top ends sharpened like pencils. Clustered together like a log fort, the beams have been pierced by dozens of arrows; on the floor around them, Dallimore has sprinkled hundred of wooden safety matches. Despite what seem to be obvious references to the Indian wars during the Western expansion era, Dowling says that's not really what Dallimore intended. But regardless of its actual subject, “King Me” has become a symbol for True West, with images all over social media.
Also in this space, Dowling's installation of drawings of a horse and its dismounted rider, with a flag in between, and George P. Perez’s cut-up and reassembled photo of a mountain are clearly on target with the Western theme. Other works, however, don't seem to have anything to do with the West, including the elegant little resin abstracts by Javier Badell that hang behind the Dallimore. The same can be said for the hard-edged abstraction by Frank T. Martinez in the adjacent shop off the alley. But since these artists are all working in Colorado, they're Western artists by definition.
Up a short flight of stairs, in an old storefront facing Blake Street, is the bulk of the show. A lot of pieces here relate to pop culture and imagery, none more so than Mike Lustig’s gigantic sign in which the contraction “Y’ALL” is spelled out in enormous letters covered in mirrors. On the opposite wall is a work nearly as big, Jess Davis's “Ode to Annie,” composed of overlapping leather hides and pelts with a cascade of uncut leather fringe falling down the center. A tribute to Annie Oakley, it has a ’70s macrame vibe that somehow seems fresh and new.
More literally neo-pop are the slick, comic-book-style mixed-media works depicting action scenes set in the Old West by Cody Kuehl (is that a cowboy name, or what?). Clearly painterly but also neo-pop are the pieces by Michael Vacchiano, especially “American Lullaby,” in which a bucking bronco, shot with arrows like St. Sebastian, is placed on field of white five-point stars on a blue background. Vacchiano takes traditional ideas but gives them a contemporary edge through the context in which he puts his subjects. More than Kuehl, Vacchiano is doing work that relates to Dowling’s — but to the curator’s credit, he included only a few other artists working the whole traditional-versus-contemporary mashup. One is Nathan Abels, who captures a blurry nighttime scene in which the lights of houses are barely glimpsed through tall grasses in the foreground. Annie Decamp's piece is also along this line, a densely composed row of faces with incorporated text. Both artists show off their remarkable skills at conveying images that evoke their subjects rather than depicting them, and do so in totally different ways.
More neo-dada than neo-pop is the elegant if disturbing found-photo installation by Julie Jablonski, a grid of images that alternate shots of bull riders in the ring with X-rays of badly broken bones. Aptly titled “Holy Shit,” it should resonate with the rodeo crowd in town.
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I was really impressed by Jared David Paul Anderson's cool and quirky, altered found-object sculptures scattered throughout the show. In one, Anderson has stacked wooden posts painted to evoke the American flag; in a couple of others, pick-axe heads have been stacked up or clustered; in yet another, a starburst of twigs radiates out from the top of a pole. Having a similar arte povera feel are the repurposed wooden sculptures by Brett Matarazzo, including a flat silhouette of a running horse mounted on a spike that's carrying a city on its back, and a similarly conceived buffalo. Across these pieces, which are painted red, are carved-out letters spelling out sentence fragments of fiction. The mood it evokes is totally in keeping with the Western spirit of True West.
Dowling demonstrated his natural gift for curating in putting together a show this ambitious in just a couple of months. But it will ride out of town along with the National Western, so this is your last week to see it.
True West, open daily through Saturday, January 25, 1821 Blake Street Gallery, Dairy Block, 720-360-4733, dairyblock.com.