Denver’s Leon Gallery took a big leap this year when it transformed itself from a commercial business trying to sell art into a nonprofit startup working to support regional culture. It’s a bold move, really, to take the focus off the bottom line and put it on something less certain, but considerably more public-minded — the idea that an art gallery can serve as a social generator, using education and outreach to welcome new and diverse artists and audiences into a visual arts scene that can be both insular and elite.
The gallery doesn’t quite have its plan in place yet, nor has it lined up all of the backers it will need to accomplish its mission. But things are already happening: new shows, an ambitious performance art series, some events for students. More is to come.
Still, its current exhibit of paintings, by Argentinian artist Ramiro Smith Estrada, shows how that work of expanding accessibility can get done on a small and informal scale.
The show is compact, colorful and user-friendly. It introduces a new talent to the city and boosts a worthy career. And, for those looking to buy, its wares are priced affordably — at least for the gallery world where sales in five and six digits are common.
Instead, Estrada’s painting are in the $3,000-plus range, a good starting point for, say, young collectors who want to decorate their apartments with something better than the mass-produced posters sold by a place like Ikea. Commerce is crucial to the art economy — artists have to eat if we want them to keep arting — and a nonprofit gallery, without the constant pressure of making cash, is in a swell position to make it happen.
That said, Estrada’s appeal to young art appreciators isn’t limited to prices. He’s in his early 30s and his paintings are clearly a product of the era he came up in, influenced heavily by expanding, easy-to-use personal technology, abundant social media and a world explored mostly through glass screens.
The show, titled “Expertly Paired,” features 10 or so oil paintings on canvas and they could all be described, broadly, as portraits. That is to say, the subjects here are people, though no one you could recognize.
Instead, they are anonymous, with their bodies flattened and their faces obscured and with their human features replaced with snippets of old wallpaper or fabric found on the web.
The work is — like your Instagram and Facebook feeds — overloaded with images, text, patterns, people, politics, religion, philosophy and personal narrative. And it employs digital tools that have become common, like photography and Photoshop.
There’s a method behind it, of course. Estrada starts by taking an actual photo portrait of his subjects. Then, each goes through a process of digital enhancement — the subtraction of eyes and ears, the addition of clip-art slogans and logos, maybe a vintage banner in the background or a vase of flowers in the foreground.
He then projects the image on canvases, renders it in line drawings, and fills in the details with a brush. Although he uses oils, he applies paint in ultra-thin layers; there’s no texture or globbiness to the surface, so that a viewer might think they were painted with acrylics. They’re flat.
While the subjects are cloaked, they aren’t without personality. Estrada adds in details particular to the person he depicts. In one case, the subject is from the Canary Islands, so there is a little yellow canary head popping out from behind a robe. In another case, he’s added a pillbox because the model mentioned during the photoshoot something about needing to take sinus medicine. The details are arbitrary, more like random hints about who a person might be rather than real than identifiers.
But there’s something rich in his ad hoc deconstructing and reassembling of these subjects that reflects how people are seen these days and, more importantly, how they choose to be seen.
Want to be more colorful and interesting on social media? There’s a filter for that, or a pose or a backdrop that can make your selfies a lot more alluring than your real self.
Not that these paintings are so cynical. They don’t feel that way at all. They’re more like a recognition of what people are really doing; they exaggerate and overindulge the practice of making up who you are as you go along and having the opportunity to alter that with a few clicks when the mood strikes.
They suggest that identity is fluid, which it is, and they give dignity to the act of self-identification. No one is stuck with the gender, face, disposition, race or class status they were born with.
Estrada sees the paintings in “Expertly Paired” as a series, and he takes seriously their depiction of the human condition. Grouped into pairs, they’re meant to represent the three stages of psychological development as outlined by 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Two of the paintings delve into the frivolity of youth, two take on the political and social awakenings of middle age, and two explore the way Kierkegaard saw people moving toward a spiritual or religious consciousness as they age.
Estrada can oversimplify these things, representing spiritual arousal by adding a cut-and-paste arch from a Roman cathedral behind a subject as he does with “Fantasy Lethal,” or by placing a tarot card in front of another, as he does with “Soviet Jet.” It’s reductive philosophy at best.
But it keeps the work from getting heavy-handed, and that’s important. The abundance of objects and shapes keeps the painting’s visual thrills bountiful; they have a nice energy. And when your work serves as a reminder of how rapidly social attitudes and awareness change, it’s smart not to bet too heavily on the certainty and permanence of anything, even 175-year-old theories on psychic evolution.
That tone is reinforced in the titles of the pieces. Names like “Roman Rebelle,” “Dandy Del Barrio” and “Cindy’s Candy” have nothing to do with what’s on the canvas. He borrowed them impulsively from a list of racehorses he came across.
It’s the best kind of appropriation because it makes a point. Things aren’t necessarily what they are on the surface; they’re whatever we want them to be, and it’s all flexible.
And it’s right at home at the transformed Leon Gallery, which is altering its own identity at the same time.
“Expertly Paired,” featuring recent paintings by Ramiro Smith Estrada continues at Leon Gallery, 1112 E 17th Ave., 303-832-1599 or leongallery.com.