As the pandemic winds down, Denver galleries gear up — The Know

Here are three exhibits that will make you grateful you got out of the house this week:

“Deeper,” at Friend of a Friend gallery through April 24

If its first offering is the right indication, the pop-up space Friend of a Friend is exactly what Denver’s art scene needs to rise to the next level: a space where artists can play with new ideas and where curators and visitors can support their experimentation and growth.

The place is small, just a single room on the upper floor of the former Evans School, the Golden Triangle landmark that was shuttered for a whopping four decades and is now being brought back to life as a community resource and economic generator for its neighborhood. The opening show is tiny as well, with just six objects from six different Denver artists.

But each is a deep consideration of its subject matter and, at the same time, delightfully perplexing.

Take, for example, Kate Gonda’s “Relief.” The three-dimensional work consists of two Kleenex boxes, one raised off the ground about 2 feet, the other inverted and suspended from a wooden rod, about 5  feet above it. Tissues have been pulled from each box and glued end-to-end, creating a fragile paper chain that connects the boxes together.

As a work of art, it’s on the absurd side — illogical, non-functional, comical. But it literally turns expectations of common objects upside down and invites us to consider materiality, purpose and our own relationship to the things around us.

There’s also Heather Schulte’s “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” an impossibly-made piece for which the artist took a single front page of The Washington Post and cross-stitched over it — very delicately — adding thousands of sewn threadings that obscure sections of the original text and images. It’s a hand-crafted takeover of the day’s news that reinterprets current events in a soft yet subversive way.

“Deeper” also presents studied, and studiable, objects from Vinni Alfonso, Elena Gonzalez, Noah Schneiderman and Allie Sutterer. None of them are what you would call commercial, or easy-to-sell.

But that’s not the main goal of the gallery’s co-directors, artist Derrick Velasquez and art historian Lauren Hartog. Instead, they want to invigorate debate over what art is and can be, sparking dialogue and artist careers at the same time. That’s what friends do.

Friend of a Friend is a temporary venture, holding space in the architecture while the building continues to be redeveloped; current plans would put a boutique hotel on the third floor within the next year or two.

But even just six months of open-minded, maker-supporting, audience-demanding exhibitions would provide a welcome rounding out for a local art scene that often sacrifices experimentation for sensational shows whose object is to draw big crowds or big sales from collectors with cash. I don’t mean to be overly critical of Denver’s galleries and museums. They’re fine, and they get better all the time. They just need to challenge us more.

Let’s hope Friend of a Friend lives up to its promise. A hyper-short, golden age of Denver art would be a post-pandemic pleasure.

Friend of a Friend gallery, 1115 Acoma St., Suite 234. Info: foafgallery.com.

“Object Empathy,” at Union Hall through April 24.

Union Hall is a relatively new downtown art space that was just gaining momentum when the pandemic hit, slowing the gallery scene down to a crawl. But its early exhibitions have been first-rate, leaving its potential to be a serious player in the Denver art scene never in doubt.

The current exhibition, “Object Empathy,” is another step in the right direction. Curator Kiah Butcher has assembled three uniquely compelling artists whose work comes together thematically, thanks to a shared penchant for autobiographical storytelling. “Object Empathy” contains a lot of swell stuff, but its best attribute is a deep cohesiveness that allows it to fully explore ideas about how we perceive ourselves and the objects we value.

If you go

Denver galleries are open for business, but with limited hours and occupancy during the pandemic. Check with galleries before you go to see if advance reservations are needed.

That’s something of a surprise since the trio on display couldn’t be any more different in the way they drop those personal stories. Alejandra Abad uses video, sound and music to create works such as “Mis Hijos,” which features an audio track of her own mother reciting a poem to her children over a series of flashing animations. Similarly, her “Pájaro Guarandol” uses stop-motion animation to relate a folk tale from Venezuela. Abad accompanies the video herself, singing and playing “el cuatro,” a traditional Latin American string instrument that belonged to her grandfather, who was born in that country.

Marco Cousins presents self-portraits in both photo and video that give an intimate look at his personal thoughts and surroundings. Both the still and moving images have a jumbled, gritty, off-center edge to them, but they also contain a gentleness and a sense of caring. In one video, for example, Cousins spends an inordinate amount of time properly folding an American flag and placing it delicately in its triangular box.

Daniel Granitto is a painter who represents here with large-scale oil on canvas depictions of placid domestic scenes — front doors, front yards, people laying on grass — which he paints from photos he takes as he goes through his daily life. There’s a sense of comfort and family in the scenes, which are warmed up by an expressive use of bright colors.

Curator Butcher ups the intimacy of these artworks by including in the exhibition personal objects owned by the artists. Cousins’ actual flag sits on a shelf next to his video. Abad’s instrument is there alongside her piece, and the original photos that inspired Granitto’s scenes are adjacent to his paintings.

This might have been a gimmick; an unnecessary dressing-up of artworks that can stand on their own. But Butcher positions them gracefully and presents them as equal players in the exhibition rather than expository sideshows. The balance of art and object allows us to consider how objects make their way into artworks and, from there, how they define the way we perceive ourselves.

What are the things you carry in your pockets or show off on social media? What is it you want to be buried with? This show suggests they are as much who you are as your flesh and blood and family history.

Union Hall, 1750 Wewatta St., Suite 144. Info: 720-927-4033 or unionhalldenver.org.

“Negotiating Spaces,” at David B. Smith Gallery through May 1

It’s so gratifying to see established artists grow and take chances, and to risk it all by putting quirky, unexpected work before the public.

That’s exactly what Amber Cobb does with her part in “Negotiating Spaces,” a two-person show that draws its energy from Cobb’s biomorphic, scene-stealing, people-scaled, WTF sculptures that occupy the center of David B. Smith Gallery’s main showroom.

Thank goodness for bravery. The objects are winsome, if weird; primitive and sophisticated at the same time; childlike but wise in how they meet the moment.

Not everyone will take to a piece like “Hello, My Little Love” at first glance. The sculpture presents like a 6-foot-tall, contorted, humanoid, object-thing that’s a bit showy in the way it demands attention. It doesn’t help that the work, made from a metal armistice wrapped in plaster, epoxy and clay, is painted over in a playful shade of periwinkle blue.

It’s part of a lineup of similar objects in the show, that come in various shapes and sizes and Easter egg colors.

There’s an unserious aura to these offerings from an artist I have learned to take very seriously, due to her deep dives into feminism, sexuality, dreams, aspirations realized and dashed. Cobb is a top-tier Denver creative unafraid to reveal herself — often her erotic self — through her objects.

But these pieces are more like friends than lovers. Cobb made them during the pandemic, when the distance we were forced to keep from our pals put us badly in need of companionship. In a sense, they serve as substitutes, roommates that are there to help us through. They have arms (sort of) and legs (maybe) and heads (almost) and they’re durable and dependable. They are designed so that you can sit on them and touch them and hang your coat, keys or jewelry on them.

And they feel right for April 2021 as we emerge from the pandemic and evaluate how we got through it and how it changed us. These sculptures reflect, with optimism, a new open-mindedness to our relationships, our communities and to art itself. Will that last? Who knows? And, frankly, who knows if these sculptures will feel relevant a year down the road. Right now, they surely do.

“Negotiating Spaces” also has related gouache paintings by Cobb, as well as mixed-media wall-mounted pieces by Baltimore artist Amy Boone-McCreesh. There’s also a ceramics show in the gallery’s backroom with recent work from Gustav Hamilton.

I don’t want to give those other artists the brush-off; the work is all terrific in its own way. But the truth is, it’s hard to stand out when there are 6-foot-tall, biomorphic object-things vying for attention. Nice to stand by, though, if not to stand out.

David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 Wazee St. Info: 303-893-4234 or davidbsmithgallery.com.

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