Best Celebration of the Absurd 2016 | Jokes of Nature | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Put together by co-curators Donald Fodness and Geoffrey Shamos, Jokes of Nature was a large group show meant to explicate RedLine's theme last year, "Play It Forward." The curators chose pieces in which the grotesque plays some kind of role, and they included things that they felt encompassed the diabolical, scatological, pornographic, dreamlike, carnivalesque, uncanny and caricatured. You get the picture: The exhibit was all but a freak show. But to the credit of the curators, they kept the teenage gross-out stuff to a minimum — though it must have been hard to resist that temptation, considering their themes. Although artists from around the world were represented, the show was also chock-full of the work of current or former Colorado artists, such as Stephen Martonis, Gretchen Marie Schaefer, Xi Zhang, Laura Shill, Martha Russo, Amber Cobb and Kristen Hatgi Sink, among many others. Fodness is an artist who works with a funk vocabulary, while Shamos is a recently minted art historian; they made a great pair of opposites, and we're hopeful they'll team up again.

Although the Museum of Outdoor Arts is mostly about sculpture in public spots around metro Denver, it also maintains a set of indoor galleries at its headquarters in Englewood. This past winter, Joel Swanson: Polysemic was installed in these inside spaces, along with one additional outside piece: a billboard titled "Respectfully" that was erected in the MOA's Sculpture Alley, next to the building. "Respectfully" referred to the common closing salutation, which Swanson freed from its context and meaning — and that's what he did with everything inside, as well. The show opened with three installations presented as one; in each, Swanson had taken a source — product packaging in the first, Zapf Dingbat symbols in the second and envelopes in the third — and then stripped it down to its basic form, in the process changing its meaning. He's particularly fascinated with language, and a wallpaper installation and a suspension piece were both based on palindromes, words spelled the same way forward and backward. Don't be fooled by all this heady content, though: Swanson always ensures not only that his work is about ideas, but that it's beautiful, too, so you can just look at it without worrying about what it means.

Looting the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century genre painting that depicts Western expansion in America, then crossing that reference with one that relates to Ed Ruscha's post-pop taste for text and irony, was the formula for the exhibit Shawn Huckins: The American __tier, presented last spring at Goodwin Fine Art. For this dazzling show, Denver painter Huckins created a body of very accomplished and witty conceptual-realist paintings, expertly copying famous historic paintings — like those by George Caleb Bingham — and defacing them, so to speak, with words spelled out in block letters running across the pictures. The words conveyed messages that were sourced from found tweets and text messages. Interestingly, Huckins masked off the parts of the image in which letters appeared before he started to paint, even though it appears as though the messages were tacked on afterward. The dialogue between the images and the words contrasts the quieter times of the past with the hectic pace of life today, but for Huckins, they also equate the way that people at that time, as now, faced an uncharted future.

Critical Focus: Monique Crine filled the lower-level gallery at MCA Denver with big, beautiful portraits of big, handsome guys. The paintings, all of which were specifically created for this exhibit, depicted recently retired professional football players who had been sidelined by injuries. The show was part of the Critical Focus series of exhibits at the MCA, which were meant to highlight the accomplishments of selected emerging artists; this one was put together by curator Nora Burnett Abrams. Crine’s paintings are so accurate in their depictions that at first they look like photos, so it comes as no surprise that she initially photographed the men, then used the resulting shots as preliminary studies for her finished paintings. The photographic quality of the paintings is reinforced by their utterly smooth surfaces, with Crine having expertly manipulated the thinned-out pigments. These portraits, many of them monumental in size, are part of an ongoing Crine series called Eden Prairie, examples of which are currently in a national traveling show.

Colorado has a world-famous Wild West history that has provided the ideal setting for innumerable novels, movies, TV shows — and even art exhibits, such as last spring's Outpost, featuring recent work by New York artist Paul Jacobsen. Born in Colorado, Jacobsen maintains a studio in Rico, near Telluride. Ruminating on the state's past, Jacobsen concluded that legalized marijuana has put us right back on the frontier, at least metaphorically: Just as we were once at the edge of the wilderness, Colorado is now at the edge of a new era. Jacobsen set the mood for his show with installation elements that included a large archway made of repurposed wallboards weathered to a gorgeous gray. Similar wallboards are seen in the backgrounds of his photo-realist paintings, lyrically taking on the topic of legal weed via meticulously done renderings of marijuana leaves in floral arrangements. Area pot tycoons, take notice: These paintings would look great on the walls of your dispensary or office.

In the '60s and '70s, Colorado was a jewel in the crown of hippiedom. Communes popped up, granola and grass were available — and then there was the regional capital, Boulder. Is it why we were the first state to fully legalize marijuana? Maybe — but one thing is certain: It launched Denver's alternative art scene, which is still going strong. In 1979, a bunch of Boulder bohemians rented a storefront in northwest Denver that became Spark Gallery, the city's first artist cooperative, and in the intervening decades, those kids with disheveled hair became veteran artists. RetroActive: Founding Spark recalled those early days; it was presented at Pirate: Contemporary Art (another early co-op that opened right after Spark) and mounted by Rule Gallery — precisely the kind of community-mindedness the hippies promoted. Among those included in the show were Clark Richert, Jerry Johnson, Richard Kallweit, Charles DiJulio, George Woodman, Andy Libertone, Paul Gillis and Margaret Neumann. Denver's vibrant contemporary-art world of today owes a big debt of gratitude to this groovy crowd.

Last summer was Matt Scobey's season. Not only was his floor piece in Denver's Biennial of the Americas one of the genuine standouts in the event, but his solo at Leon Gallery, The Essence, was one of the strongest shows of the year. In it, Scobey played with art history in a set of chaste post-minimal boxes and a group of brutalist totems. Each type of work employed cast concrete as its principal medium. The boxes, titled "Vibe Transmitters," were placed on wooden stands of different heights. They had three separate parts: a transparent colored acrylic sheet through which light emitted was sandwiched between a concrete base and a concrete top. As good as these were, they were overshadowed by Scobey's even better non-objective totems, also in concrete. Some of them were made from casts of discarded items, like soda bottles or cut-up basketballs, but surely the best were those composed of purely geometric shapes, including pyramids, cones and solid rectangles. In these, Scobey consciously referred to Brancusi's "Bird in Space" and "Endless Column," and he clearly couldn't go wrong with that.

Last summer, the new mobile exhibition venue Black Cube was launched by Laura Merage, the founder of RedLine, who chose Cortney Lane Stell to run it. Black Cube plans to sponsor pop-up events beyond Denver; the goal is ultimately to travel the country in a big black box. A standout among the initial Black Cube offerings was Derrick Velasquez: New Brutal, a captivating architectonic installation last winter. For New Brutal, Velasquez erected a tower in the gutted interior of the under-construction Stanley Marketplace, at the east end of Stapleton. The tower, which rose to 25 feet, was made of two-by-fours covered with fake wood panels adorned with plastic ornamentation. Open voids standing in for windows allowed viewers to see into the lighted interior. During the course of the show, Velasquez added more and more details, making the cheaply built tower even more pretentious by the end than it had been at the beginning. It was something like a parody of a Venetian palazzo by way of Home Depot, effortlessly ridiculing the pompous and tawdry new buildings now changing the face of Denver.

The Colorado Photographic Arts Center has gone through a number of ups and downs since its founding in 1963 as an advocacy group for fine-art photography, but things have probably never been worse than they were six months ago. Two things were happening: The organization had been told that it needed to vacate its cramped and unworkable space in Highland, with the property owner wanting to go in another direction, and then CPAC director Rupert Jenkins announced that he was leaving town and giving up his post. So CPAC had no space to move to and no director to help find one, though boardmembers were already looking. In September, CPAC brought on a new director, Samantha Johnston. At that time, the word was out that Ironton Gallery would be closing, and the handsome space it occupied was up for rent. You can see the happy ending coming: CPAC unveiled its much more serviceable headquarters in the former gallery in February. And there was even a bonus, as an artist in an adjacent studio had moved out, allowing CPAC to take over that space for its offices.

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, Design Council, a support group for the Architecture, Design and Graphics department at the Denver Art Museum, launched an annual fundraiser held in the dead of winter called Design After Dark. Almost immediately, it became an absolute must-attend event for Denver-area architects, designers and artists, as well as many of their clients. This year's version, titled "Amass" and held last month in an empty roller-skating rink on South Broadway — yes, weird locations are a standard feature of the event — attracted a huge, glittering crowd heavily larded with the hip and the impeccably dressed. Organizers had invited artists and others to contribute works, some of which were spectacular, to be sold for the fundraiser. Participating artists included the likes of Ravi Zupa, Matt Scobey, Jeanne Quinn, Jaime Molina, David Kremer, Blanca Guerra and Phil Bender. The stylishness of the DAD party would seem to reflect the stylishness of the department's curator, Darrin Alfred, but he passes off credit for the event's success to the hardworking Design Council committee charged with putting it together.

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