Review: Pattern Shop at 25

A lot of people lay claim to being urban pioneers in Denver’s arty River North neighborhood, but Sharon and Rexford Brown have the deed to prove it. They bought their house more than a quarter-century ago, before the area became gentrification central, when it was little more than a forsaken railroad corridor and when many of those trendy loft buildings with cute names, like the Dry Ice Factory, were still actual factories.

The Browns took a chance, picking up a failing, red-brick building that was part of the 100-year-old old Silver Engineering Works plant, where laborers spent decades making wooden patterns of machine parts that were converted into iron and steel.

“We had no plumbing and no electricity,” said Sharon. “Just a good architect.”

That was David Tryba, who went on to become one of Denver’s most prolific designers, and he helped them create both a home and an art gallery — Pattern Shop Studio — which as been a stalwart of the cultural scene here ever since. A long line of the region’s most gifted artists have shown there over the years.

The gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a clever show that borrows from its own name. “Pattern Makers” features five artists who create elaborate patterns out of paint or ceramics. Each brings a lot to the table.

Pattern Shop has always had great incentive to put together pleasing exhibits. Because the work is displayed throughout their own house —  in the living room and workspaces, in the library and along staircases — Rex and Sharon have to live with it themselves full-time.

And with letting strangers parade through their personal space. “I’d say we’ve had between 2,200 to 3,000 people come through here every year,” said Rex.

Needless to say, the Browns keep a tidy kitchen, though they’ve gotten used to a lack of privacy over time. “And, you know,” said Sharon. “The nicest people go to art shows.”

The upside is a life filled with a continuous energy as works come and go. Rex describes the current show as the most dynamic in the gallery’s history, and that’s good way to put it.  All the work in “Pattern Makers” appears to be in constant motion, full of repeating geometry that has lines and shapes connecting and intersecting over and over again, and with colors and forms repeating endlessly.

These paintings and clay pieces all require vast amounts of labor, small repeated gestures that build patterns with a meticulous precision.  Even where the patterns go awry as a way of making them interesting, it’s clear that it took the artist vast amounts of time to establish them in the first place — just so that they could be altered.

It’s rare to be able to discuss the work of several artists all at once, but the pieces here are highly aligned. There is considerable confusion between foreground and background in nearly all of them. Sometimes a shape appears to be on the outer surface of the painting, other times it sinks into the base coat. Things often change as you stare.

There’s also a sense that the artists are, to some degree, playing —  actually having fun. These works don’t take on politics or social order. They don’t conjure up raw emotions or make you contemplate the planet like a landscape might, or ask you to consider the human condition in the way portraits can. For that reason, this art isn’t for everyone.

But it is challenging in its own way, with each object inviting you to figure it out like a crossword puzzle or a map, to discern why one line goes north and another south and why sometimes things collapse.

And so you can spend a long time looking at Annalee Schorr’s acrylic-covered canvases, or her sheets of Plexiglass back-painted with black and orange, green and blue lines that zig and zag and meet with an exactitude at corners. Her patterns repeat, change hues, break apart and compress.

Or you could enjoy the optical shape-shifting that takes place on Susan Blake’s small canvases, which test our perceptions of surface and depth. Or attempt to do the math that guided Jerry Johnson in positioning the inter-connected grays and blacks for “Zoom,” a large-scale acrylic painting that hangs in Rex’s study. Or fill in the missing links in any one of Marty Jaquis’s softly-shaded puzzles, painted in lavender, indigo and red that build circles and squares out of thousands of carefully placed triangles.

There’s an energy to the work that comes across most clearly in Jonathan Kaplan’s ceramics. He does his own sort of patterning, offering up here a series of similar tea pots in different colors and a grid of spherical dots, set on a wall, that push the way people perceive work in clay.

As a show, it’s full of optimism and surprising warmth, considering there isn’t a figurative moment in any of the pieces. But that fuzzy feeling could come from the gallery itself. It’s a homey place and art tends to look good there, regardless of genre.

That’s been the secret to the Pattern Shop Studio’s success. The Browns let their personal taste melt into their professional space. That’s been a refreshing constant in a part of town that has constantly changed.

“Pattern Makers” has limited hours and opens with a reception on Friday, Sept. 2, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  Additional receptions will take place on Oct. 7 and Oct. 21, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  The gallery is also open to groups and individuals any time by appointment. 3349 Blake St., 303-297-9831 or patternshopstudio.com.

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