No Denver art gallery stays on message as well as Visions West in LoDo. The place has corralled a herd of notable painters and sculptors, and honed a dedicated clientele, through an endless quest to define what “Western art” ought to look like in the 21st century.
So it’s no surprise to see its creative posse contributing the bulk of the work in “New Frontier,” a group exhibit at the Curtis Center for the Arts in Greenwood Village. The show is all about expressing the sensibilities of Old West iconography through the techniques of contemporary art, and Visions West is the undisputed king of commercial outposts in that regard.
If any single adjective describes the Visions West style, it has got to be “cheeky.” Its artist have their own individual methods but it’s not unusual to see them having a little fun with the material made famous a century ago (or more) by Western art heroes like Frederic Remington, George Catlin and Charles Marion Russell, or those figures who took the movement forward in the 20th century, such as Maynard Dixon and Frank Mechau. Cowboys and Indians, horses, buffalo and bluffs — they’re all up for parody in this game.
And so we get full-out comedy from a painter like Billy Schenck, who recreates Western scenes with a pop twist, bumping up the colors and introducing comic-book dialogue bubbles into the picture. In one oil-on-canvas work, a cavalry soldier is depicted on horseback, looking awkwardly toward the rear and proclaiming “HOW DID THEY GET BEHIND US!!” Presumably, he means the Indians he thought his troops were chasing. In this revisionist tale, the natives aren’t as disorganized as history has made them out to be.
Other artists present the region as it is today, cleverly preserving the trappings of days gone by, but adding in a little truth-telling about what’s really going on now in those quaint mountain hamlets. Foremost among them is Tracy Stuckey, whose subjects don fur and denim, just like their high-altitude forefathers, but also sunglasses and skinny jeans. They pose in front of snowy peaks, but also swimming pools. They are the true West, though the privileged one that gets magnified in wealthy playgrounds like Aspen, Park City and Jackson Hole.
The clash between then and now is what drives this work, though it takes multiple forms. Theodore Waddell, who recently showed at the Denver Art Museums, is a pure abstractionist, taking liberties here as he always does with line and form to depict wildlife. His scenes of horses and open plains are timeless and just the thing that attracted Western art pioneers, stretching from Albert Bierstadt to Denver muralist Allen Tupper True. But while those earlier guys went for precision and clarity, Waddell operates with a free mind and hand.
In the same vein, Rocky Hawkins plays with images of Indians. You can make out, in his oil paintings, the silhouettes of warriors or hunters pulling back hard on the strings of their bows, creating a powerful tension that drives the moment. But the scenery fades quickly into the abstract. His reality is mucked up with mysterious forms and shapes and buffed up with bold blues, oranges and yellows. Patrick Dean Hubbell does a similar thing, only his original source is the complicated patterns of Indian blanket weavings. He make them more complicated, and more interesting in an artistic sense.
The work might look familiar to the many people who pass by the Visions West storefront on busy Wazee Street. The place has big windows and uses them wisely to show off its wares.
But it all takes on a different personality in Greenwood Village’s official museum, a quaint place in a historic red-brick building on Orchard Road. Greenwood Village is a town with multiple personalities, but still manages, in places, to hold on to its Western heritage in a way Denver doesn’t. The town has movie theaters and strip malls but also open land, wide streets and two municipal horse parks where folks can take their equine pets out to roam freely.
More than an urban gallery or museum, the Curtis comes off as a meaningful setting for works like Will Pope’s “The Horse in Motion,” a large-scale painting that has high-rise architecture crashing into a world populated by horses, elk and a cactus or two. That in-between world Pope conveys very much contains places like Greenwood Village. In Denver, his work might feel nostalgic; in Greenwood Village, it presents itself more like a picture of what’s going on out the window.
In that way, the show feels right at home. It’s not, on the whole, museum fare. It’s commercial work and offers quick, entertaining jolts more than it explores deep ideas. Some of it is challenging and some of it is too easy-to-read to take all that seriously. It is, more than we are generally comfortable with these days, male-dominated.
Still, it’s a big measure better than most of the art that makes it to the walls of suburban art centers and the kind of exhibit that takes a town in new directions. And it’s great to see art with a strong sense of itself and, yes, a little sassiness, finding a place in a part of the region that usually plays it a little safer and and a lot more sentimental.
“New Frontier” continues through Feb. 24 at the Curtis Center for the Arts, 2349 E. Orchard Road, Greenwood Village. Free. Info at 303-797-1779 or greenwoodvillage.com/curtis.