The term “gentrification” has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately, and its effect on the art scene over the past couple of years exemplifies the whole process as it’s unfolding in Denver. As old neighborhoods are discovered by the developers who are misshaping the new city, new residents and businesses come in and the rents begin to soar, driving established residents out.
Though the forced closure of Rhinoceropolis was a big story at the end of 2016, other dislocations were happening around the same time, including those of Ice Cube, Hinterland and Edge galleries. Last year, the ax fell on the longtime homes of Pirate, Next and Ironton’s gallery (some of the studios are still there)...and there's no end in sight.
Moved by what's happening, artists Katharine McGuinness and Leo Franco conceived of The New Underground, the current exhibit at Spark Gallery. Mark Brasuell, Spark’s president, joined them in the concept phase, and they sent out a call for artists who were members of alternative spaces that had been compelled to relocate because of the increasing commercial development of the core neighborhoods. Apart from a size limit, there were no other selection guidelines; everything that was brought in became part of the show.
Spark isn’t that big, but somehow the pieces work perfectly in the gallery's interlocking spaces, and the show does not look like the result of happenstance. Brasuell told me that they had expected a greater volume of work and were prepared to hang the show “salon style,” from floor to ceiling, but luckily, they didn’t have to.
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There are some familiar names in the group, including Phil Bender, a founder of Pirate (which is now located in Lakewood). He's represented by a grid, his signature assemblage approach, made up of flat Chinese lanterns hung on the wall. Gayla Lemke is also well known; she brought in a couple of her ceramic spheres on which she applies messages, in this case “Strength” and “Resist.” Lemke has long been connected to Edge, which also moved to Lakewood.
Jean Smith, from the currently inactive Ice Cube, is known for ceramics, and here she’s created a multi-part wall relief made of simple shapes. Laura Phelps Rogers, who shows altered photos, really got around: She was a member of Pirate, Edge and Ice Cube. Some of the other artists who brought in standout pieces — including Julie Jablonski, Brian Cavanaugh, Faith Williams and Daniel Pettus — hail from various co-ops, including but not limited to Pirate, Edge and Ice Cube.
The overall strength of most of the pieces is high, and this show is definitely a worthwhile endeavor not just for its aesthetics, but also for the politics inherent in the theme. Spark is the ideal venue for such a venture, as it’s one of the few co-ops that hasn’t succumbed to the changing real estate environment in town — but it might when its lease is up in a year and a half. The building in which Spark is based, which also houses Core, was owned by legendary Denver artist Lawrence Argent. He passed away late last year, and the property is now in his estate, making the future of these two surviving co-ops pretty murky.
The New Underground runs through February 4 at Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive. For more information, call 720-889-2200 or go to sparkgallery.com.