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."
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.
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.
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.