Road Kill

It was in the early 1980s that many of Denver's alternative art spaces first came into being. Spark and then Pirate were founded, and within a few years, Edge and Core and other, more minor locales appeared. At first these spaces were little more than friends-only clubs. But soon their memberships grew, and Spark, Pirate, Edge and Core evolved into significant art venues displaying some of the most adventurous and intelligent work around. Of course, these co-ops have had their ups and downs. But try to imagine the Denver art scene since the 1980s without them. Would we have ever seen the work of Louis Recchia and Zoa Ace? How about Phil Bender? You get the picture (or should that be installation?).

The city's vibrant cooperatives were the driving force behind the formation of the Alternative Arts Alliance in 1984. Artists and arts advocates in Denver--most of them connected to one or another of the alternative spaces--created the organization with the noble mission of encouraging the arts, not just here but everywhere. In the intervening years the nonprofit alliance has grown in influence, in part due to the wide variety of activities it has sponsored, including visiting-artist programs, art festivals and, most notably, the annual Open Show held in the fall.

The Open Show has become one of the city's most important art events of the year--and that's a shame. The problem is the show's underlying premise--to let anyone and everyone exhibit. The idea springs from the anything-goes philosophy that enjoys wide acceptance among artists. According to this way of thinking, an artist is defined as anyone who calls himself one. But what winds up forgotten in this frenzy of egalitarianism is that leaving an exhibit wide open invariably produces a mess of garbage only occasionally relieved by a work of art.

Someone from the Alliance really ought to explain how creating a show that has no standards is good for the art world. The truth, of course, is that it's not even good for the show itself--which is precisely the point now being made, albeit inadvertently, by the 10th Annual Alternative Arts Alliance Traveling Show. The Traveling Show comprises the juried portion of the Open Show--in other words, the part where some standards were actually applied.

It was left to a jury of three respected art-world denizens--University of Denver art professor Lawrence Argent, Denver Art Museum curator Dianne Vanderlip and Artyard Gallery director Peggy Mangold--to separate the Traveling Show wheat from the Open Show chaff. And for the most part they've carried out their thankless task admirably.

This year's edition of the Traveling exhibit occupies the entire second-floor space at the Arvada Center, a marked improvement over last year's version, which was held in Denver's cramped Art Department Gallery. As viewers climb the stairs to the upper gallery, they are first confronted by a virtual icon of the alternative scene, a sublime found-object assemblage entitled "Holsters," by--who else?--Phil Bender. Bender has arranged a grid of nine toy-gun holsters approximately at eye level. Some are made of leather and have been tooled beautifully; others are made of ugly dirty-brown plastic or vinyl. In a testament to Bender's skill, they've been totally unified by the format of the grid.

Bender isn't the only artist in the show who's interested in cutting-edge sculpture. Also doing first-rate work in three dimensions is Zoran Belic, who uses found objects, like Bender, but gives them a decidedly different twist. In "Saturn 5," Belic has mounted a steel shelf on the wall and a steel pad on the floor; the shelf is visually linked to the pad by a metal crutch. The meaning of the piece is predictably ambiguous, but it's compelling nonetheless. Small installations of this sort often tend to be the most excessive, and Belic exercised admirable restraint in creating a piece that's grim without being maudlin.

Bill Green employs ready-made and custom crafted elements in "Put Yourself in My Shoes," an engaging wall-mounted sculpture with photographic elements that he describes as a "stereo viewing cabinet." Green has mounted a long black box on the wall, and inside it placed a series of stereo viewers that at the push of a button reveal the artist's feet in a variety of situations--from barefoot in the shower to stocking-clad on a rug.

Leanna Hund also uses ready-mades--in her case, construction tapes, plastic pipes and nylon ropes. Cashing in on the materials' brilliant hues, Hund has created a surprisingly fresh and coolly elegant 3-D tapestry. Also surprisingly stylish, given the hit-and-miss character of her long career, is Marti Lawrence's "Zen Birdhouse." In this sculpture made of found materials, Lawrence has set a wooden box on top of a tripod of bamboo poles that have been crudely lashed together with rope. Somehow it works.

The best three-dimensional piece in the show is the Eiko Ozawa installation "In the Night, I Chose Chance." This elaborate multimedia piece looks as though it were made of fired ceramic, but it's actually built from something approximating cast paper. The remarkable colors--an array of greenish grays--resemble ceramic glazes, and the way some of the elements seem to float suggests an imaginary undersea world. Ozawa's work isn't widely known at this point, but if "In the Night, I Chose Chance" is any indication, Denver's got a new upstart art star.

While the Traveling Show has many sculptures to recommend it, that's surely not the case with paintings. Those who have come through with interesting works compose a very short list: the little-known Donnea Simms, along with by-now household names Steven Altman and Cameron Jones.

Simms has fashioned a beautiful combination of expressionism and geometry with "In It Together," an abstract oil-and-wax diptych. On the left side of the frame Simms has painted jagged black lines over a white color field, then partially painted them out. On the right side she gives us an all-over abstraction in streaky brown. Altman also combines gestures and lines in "Untitled (White #7)," a mixed media on canvas that's consistent with past paintings by the artist. As the title implies, the piece is mostly white with abstract scribbles and smears in black and red. Altman is, hands-down, one of the most important abstract painters in the region, and the Traveling Show is lucky to have him.

The organizers are equally fortunate to have "Sibyl," an oil on canvas from Jones, who has a history of taking old-master paintings, shattering their compositions and putting the pieces back together in what amounts to a bold cubism. In "Sibyl," Jones uses forms vaguely suggestive of puzzle pieces that are actually details from a famous painting by Michelangelo. Jones has been one of the most artistically ambitious painters in town, so it should come as no surprise that she already has left paintings like "Sibyl" behind and is now making heroically scaled representational works.

Printmaking gets generally short shrift in the Traveling Show, which is odd given the sophistication of the medium in the area. But printmakers Brian Comber and Amy Guadagnoli contribute three of the most memorable pieces in the exhibit. Comber's "Hope Attracts Joy" consists of a pair of mirror-image etchings whose top halves are black and whose bottom halves reveal what look like bullets flying in opposite directions. Guadagnoli is represented by a pair of magnificent, full-color woodblock prints. "Swandance" and "Cocoons" recall in their palettes the great Japanese woodblocks that remain the standard by which the medium is measured. However, Guadagnoli's forms are purely abstract, reflecting none of the pictorial content that was an essential component of their Japanese forebears.

Many changes have taken place lately within the Alternative Arts Alliance. Rumor has it that the annual Left Bank Festival will not be held this year, and there have even been discussions about changing the Open Show (and therefore the Traveling Show) from an annual to a biennial event. So since things are in a state of flux, here's a suggestion: Instead of sponsoring a show with room for everybody, how about one that would showcase the best the region has to offer? As things stand today, the Open Show is such a laughingstock that many of the city's most important contemporary artists no longer enter it. Demanding a little quality along with all the equality would ensure that both the Open Show and the Traveling Show will serve the truly talented artists of Denver--not just the petulant dilettantes who thus far have crowded so many of them out.

10th Annual Alternative Arts Alliance Traveling Show, through May 18 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.