Is this Denver’s biggest piece of art?

Forrest Morrison's new murals are spread across five floors of the Curtis Hotel

Artist Forrest J. Morrison’s update of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” Photos by Daniel Tseng.

Forrest J. Morrison’s massive, new murals at the Curtis Hotel are irreverent, irresistible and spectacularly excessive at every turn. Or on every floor, you might say.

The murals — more than 1,600 square feet in total — decorate the glass-enclosed elevator vestibules off the downtown hotel’s parking garage. There are five of them, each a contemporary and thoroughly cheeky update of a museum-level masterpiece.  The barely-touching hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel play “rock, paper, scissors.” Rembrandt’s examination room in “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” morphs into a tattoo parlor populated by bearded, 21st century hipsters.

As far as paintings go, they are completely unnecessary — who spends $100,000 dressing up the parking garage? But that, of course, is what makes them a treasure. In one grand gesture, the Curtis has given its guests an adventurous surprise and done more than its fair share to support public art and local artists.

Curtis Hotel guests encounter Forrest J. Morrison’s entertaining murals when coming and going from the parking garage. Photos by Daniel Tseng, Special to the Denver Post.

Morrison worked on the project for nearly five months, with daily help from fellow painter Michael Vacchiano, and he’s almost finished. The pair moved floor-to-floor, covering over the elevator doors, walls and ceilings as guests paraded relentlessly through their job site.

“We spent a couple of weeks painting just the doors because you get about three strokes in, and a crowd comes in or goes out and the doors open and close, and then you go back to work,” said Morrison. “And the paint dries so quickly that you have to remix it each time that happens.”

The medium is house paint, purchased in custom colors from a local hardware store. It’s not as artist-friendly as, say, the acrylic paint Morrison uses in his studio pieces, but it made sense when working on standard drywall.

“The challenge of doing this, especially with house paint, has been matching the brush style, the general aesthetic, the color palette of the well-known artists,” said Morrison.

The Curtis Hotel’s garage doors become entry to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” diner. Photo by Daniel Tseng.

The hotel allowed the artists creative freedom — and they took advantage. On one floor, the fat little cherubs known to populate 19th century French painter François Boucher’s heavenly scenes float around with iPads and use remote controls to fly drones and watch TV.  On another level, present-day cartoon characters join the crowd in a parody of Hieronymus Bosch’s 500-year-old “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  On yet another, the lonely diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is relocated to Denver with a picture of the recently demolished Gates rubber plant inserted into the scenery.

The artists, who covered both the inside of the glass-enclosed vestibules and the outside walls connecting to the parking garage, had to work around things like the “up” and “down” button panels, utility pipes and trash cans. When possible, though, they incorporated those features into their work. One of the cherubs, for example, holds a plug that might be inserted into a phone jack installed for firefighters in case of an emergency. There are also a few scenes that hotel guests can use to take selfies.

“The whole thing needed to feel more like an experience,” said Morrison, and “less like a painting on the wall.”

 

For the Curtis, the murals double as a bit of branding. The hotel is one of dozens across the nation operated by Denver-based Sage Hospitality, which uses art — usually by local artists — to set itself apart from competitors.

At the Curtis, it has worked with local art consultant NINE dot ARTS for several years to incorporate pieces from Denver creatives, such as Jimmy Sellars and Paul Brokering, into its interior design.

The goal with each piece, according to NINE dot ARTS’ Deanne Gertner, is to turn ordinary moments of travel into memorable experiences that make guests want to return.  It’s art, but it’s also business.

“If you are waiting for the elevator, we want you to have an exciting moment,  other than the utilitarian use of getting from one floor to the other,” she said.

Hard to tell if Hieronymus Bosch would appreciate this move, but it’s part of the scenery now at the Curtis Hotel. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi

For Morrison, the project has been a way of expanding his practice and introducing himself to new audiences. He’s better known for a more serious style of object-making. His upcoming show at Leon Gallery in April, for example, will feature formal studio paintings modeled after late 1800s hunting-related, still lifes that bring together things like mounted animal heads and dead birds with pistols and knives.

Morrison describes the body of work as a sort of subversive ad campaign addressing the way people “disregard nature and treat it as commodity or a roadside attraction rather than this ever-present force that surrounds us.”

The Curtis murals are the opposite of serious. You could certainly read into them things about our current obsession with electronics or pop culture, but the pieces are really meant to be momentary escapes, capturing the zeitgeist of living in the current age. They’re a great deal of fun.

They run the risk of appearing dated just a decade or so from now when some of the included elements, like electronic tablets or selfie sticks, could go out of fashion, but Morrison is just fine if his work moves into the realm of nostalgia one day.

“In a lot for ways, creating a piece that is totally free of anything that might be dated means there’s nothing to identify with except for on a really deep and intellectual level, which a lot of people aren’t interested in,” he said.

Michael Vacchiano and Forrest Morrison at their extended job-site. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi

The Curtis murals supply instantaneous thrills, and plenty of them. Already they are a source of curiosity for guests and those attending the many activities held in the hotel’s meeting rooms. People linger, laugh, takes lots and lots of photos.

They also interact with them in less flattering ways. The paintings are covered with automotive-grade enamel coating but that’s a limited defense against the thuds of over-sized suitcases banging into the wall or people leaning against the images as they chat on their cellphones.

That of course, is part of “the big trade-off” for all public art, as Gertner puts it.  People are supposed to be comfortable around it, and sometimes they get too comfortable.

In the end, the Curtis murals are made of house paint applied to 30-year-old drywall, and that makes them vulnerable to the sort of rough love viewers will undoubtedly give them over time. “We’ve already had two big pieces of luggage go through the wall on the lobby floor,” said Morrison.

4 COMMENTS

  1. OK. I officially change it to “indoor” piece of art. Though now I’m thinking Sandra Fettingis’ work in the Colorado Convention Center might be bigger. I love that piece by the way. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing something.

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