Last year, Pirate Contemporary Art, one of the city’s oldest still-extant artist cooperatives, had to bail from its home at 3655 Navajo Street, where the artist-run gallery had been since 1982. With gentrification sailing at an alarming speed not just through northwest Denver, but Denver in general, the Pirates went outside the city in search of cheaper rent. They found safe harbor in the 40 West Arts District in Lakewood, where Edge and Next, two other co-ops that had been Pirate’s neighbors at 37th and Navajo, had also landed.
The new location has some upsides, among them a building in much better shape. The members outfitted the raw space with pristine new walls and effective lighting, creating two sensational exhibition areas: one in front for associate members, and a larger one in back for full members. But there are downsides, too, primarily the distance from central Denver. It’s been hard to get people to come to the gallery aside from opening-night receptions and First Fridays, and even then the crowds are thinner. And that’s too bad, because there have been a lot of worthwhile exhibits since last summer’s move that too few people saw.
The Associates Space is currently occupied by Scottie Burgess: Boundary Lines, a solo with only a handful of pieces, though two of them are monumental in size. Just one of them could have carried the show all by itself: the absolutely fabulous “A Path to Here.” The enormous installation is made out of scores of short wooden boards stacked on top of each other to create a candy cane-like form that arcs above viewers’ heads. At the bottom the boards have been blackened, while at the top they have been left raw. Running parallel to this form is a shorter arc that supports the larger one, but it’s been wrapped in multi-colored twine. With this Burgess show, Pirate continues to demonstrate its longtime strength at showcasing young, emerging artists.
As good as Boundary Lines is, though, The Pirate Alumni Show in the Members Space is clearly the main attraction. It was organized by Pirate member Charles Livingston, who came up with a list of people who had once been Pirates (inadvertently leaving some out), asked them to submit works and then selected the pieces he wanted to display. But even though he chose what to include, it’s difficult to design an exhibit for work by nearly twenty artists. Rather than put similar things together to create themes or put them together by era (the years a member was active are indicated in copy posted on the wall next to each piece), Livingston distributed them almost randomly, a free-associational approach to laying out group shows that’s been something of a fad recently but here results in some cluttered places. While a few of the works were previously exhibited at Pirate, most of the pieces are newer, with some created earlier this year.
During Pirate’s long history, its ranks have included members who have gone on to become some of the city’s most significant artists over the past few decades. Several are represented here, including the late Dale Chisman, with a trio of abstract prints. Livingston told me that Pirate didn’t have the insurance to cover one of Chisman’s paintings, which are worth thousands. That struck me as funny, because I can remember shows in the 1990s when the main gallery on Navajo Street was lined with Chismans, with no one at all concerned about security. Other illustrious artists from that same era, or even earlier, are Margaret Neumann, who is represented by a signature expressionist painting of a female nude, and Martha Daniels, who sent in some outrageously colored ceramic fruits along with an even more outrageous ceramic sculpture, an expressionist parody of a potted plant. Both Neumann and Daniels now live in California.
Even if the show doesn’t flow as well as it could, there are some nice passages. In one, some of Daniels’s ceramic fruit, their colors and execution reminiscent of such Mexican religious kitsch as those spray-painted praying hands, are displayed on a stand; they’re bracketed by sublime Nick Silici non-objective concrete paintings to the left, and a Michael Brohman installation to the right in which the artist has suspended a wire bedspring from the ceiling with clear crystal chandelier drops hanging from it. The piece is wonderful, both in the way the crystals catch the light and how the whole thing casts a complex set of shadows against the wall. Another great moment is the pairing of the mural-sized Terry Campbell painting of a mugging and a montage of images brought together in a single painting by Peter Illig. The pieces definitely resonate with one another, and both feature a figure aiming a gun.
Also deserving of a shout-out are an idiosyncratic William Stockman painting of crudely done faces and other elements set on a white ground, Monique Crine’s pair of photorealist paintings depicting her father, and Collin Parson’s illuminated mirrored wall tondo and transparent cube-shaped sculpture, both based on catching and translating light.
Not only is The Pirate Alumni Show worth seeing just for the art exhibited, but it could serve as a preliminary study for a properly done retrospective — not just of Pirate, but of the entire alternative scene since the 1980s.
From here, oral interviews with former members could be used to establish a formal history; with that information, it would be possible to mount a show that would include only pieces that had originally been exhibited at the co-ops, and from a more comprehensive roster of members. Of course, a venue like Pirate is too small to pull off such an effort, but History Colorado could take it on: It has the infrastructure to organize the interviews and is apparently desperate for exhibition ideas. Other possibilities might be MCA Denver, the Center for Visual Art, the Arvada Center or RedLine. No matter who takes on the challenge, though, it’s important to document the development and impact of the artist cooperatives of Denver before that history is lost forever.
Scottie Burgess: Boundary Lines and The Pirate Alumni Show, through July 8, Pirate Contemporary Art, 7130 16th Avenue, Lakewood, 720-601-0966, pirateartonline.org.