Delusions about Denver

While I was reading West of Center (you can see my post here) and doing further research into reviews of the exhibition, I came across this review in Westword by Colorado-phile Michael Paglia. He quoted art critic David Hickey’s scathing response to the show: “It’s corny... It’s the kind of thing Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time.” He is of course referencing the seminal Pacific Standard Time exhibitions (the catalog of which will be read and reviewed by me this weekend), which began exhibiting in 2011 and proposed that the West Coast (specifically Southern California) was never inferior to the East Coast (specifically New York City) which was long regarded as the center of the avant-garde in America. In a way, PST is almost re-writing history, and it is being widely accepted because it is difficult to deny that California is not a center in its own right. However, Hickey is blatantly stating that Denver– a peripheral, regional area– cannot possibly attempt the same sort of re-write because we just don’t matter enough.

I’m going to be blunt here: David Hickey, you are an ignorant a**hole.

Dan Ostermiller, “Scottish Cow and Calf” (2001)
(Photo from Blaine Harrington Photography)

Denver– and the whole of Colorado, really– is always being made out to be some po-dunk hick town, and the stereotype is being reinforced by many of our own inhabitants. For example, in 2006, the former Denver Art Museum director, Lewis Sharp, made the following comment in The Denver Post regarding the giant bronze “Scottish Cow and Calf” by Dan Ostermiller: “Yeah, we’re a cow town. But there are artists working in a representational manner who are creating works of art of artistic merit, and to embrace that in the broader community of public art gets right back to offering a variety of experiences.” While he is sort of trying to break the Denver stereotype with this statement, he is simultaneously reminding everyone that, artistically, we’re still behind the ball.

Colorado art is constantly seen as subpar and irrelevant in the grand scheme of art history. My own proctor for my comps, who I should mention is NOT my thesis advisor, tried to talk me out of my thesis topic, asking that I do something a little more “traditional.” To support this, he said that too many grad students end up doing stuff on local topics because they are afraid of going outside of their comfort zone. I rebutted by saying that I am interested in exploring why Colorado art “doesn’t matter” outside of the state and rattled off the concepts of regionalism, minor history, post-structuralism, and post-modernism to back up my stance.

It is with this background in mind that I am going to take this opportunity to break many of the myths and over-exaggerated stereotypes about Denver and Colorado at large. I am going to start with art and expand outwards. Not everything is going to be covered, and I am speaking largely from my own perspective. Fellow Coloradans are welcome to (nicely) refute my views.

Before I get started, let’s identify some of the core issues regarding “centers” (albeit in a very abbreviated manner). New York City and Los Angeles are two examples of centers: they are enormous, indicating that they are well-established, and they have a large amount of cultural and capital production. NYC is one of the oldest cities in the country, and it is one of the closest points in America to Europe, which meant that it was easy to sail to. It had centuries to develop and expand, and this expansion started speeding up with immigration in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. LA is not as old as NYC, mainly because the Transcontinental Railroad did not come along until 1869. The Gold Rush was a major incentive to move west. LA is warm and sunny, which made it an ideal place for movie production when artificial lighting was not so great. As we all know, LA eventually became a center of entertainment, one of the biggest forms of revenue production ever. Therefore, what NYC and LA have in common in terms of qualifying them as centers is size and money. Denver, while it is about as old as LA, is not as big nor as wealthy. Are these all of the issues that come into play in the center vs. periphery discussion? No, but that is all outside the scope of this post. Let’s move on to what this post is about: Denver and Colorado stereotypes.

Vance Kirkland, “Explosions on a Sun 70 Billion Light Years from Earth” (1979)
Image from The Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art

Colorado art is nothing but landscapes. I blame tourist art galleries for this one. They are full of photographs and paintings of mountain lakes, aspens, the Maroon Bells, etc etc. While landscapes are undeniably popular here, they were popular all across America for decades. Furthermore, ALL of American art was once considered to be second rate to Europe until the turn of the 20th century. The 1913 Armory Show was in New York City, but did you know that Denver had its own “Armory Show”? According to Hugh Grant’s introduction to Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture by Michael Paglia and Mary Voelz Chandler,

 

Strong divisions rose over the styles of Impressionism, mild Fauvism and restrained Cubism when, in 1919, a landmark exhibition was held at the Denver Public Library. Innocently called the Twenty-fifth Annual Exhibition of the Denver Art Association, it was subsequently and notoriously nicknamed The Denver Armory Show, a reference to the 1913 New York Armory Show that shocked America… headlines in the Rocky Mountain News blared: ‘Library Art Exhibit Called “Fraud” and “Monstrosity” by Two Writers’ (April 20); ‘Bolshevism in Art’ (April 17).

Sound familiar? And this was only 6 years after the original Armory Show. You may laugh as you read that this exhibition was in a library, but the Denver Art Association eventually became the Denver Art Museum, and the only reason the exhibition was held in the library was because there was not a building large enough that would accommodate an art exhibition, as there were no museums here at that point.

Furthermore, I have three words for you: Fifteen Colorado Artists. In 1948, there was a massive schism within the Denver Artists Guild over traditional styles of art versus Modernism. Fifteen of these artists broke away to form their own Modernist group, and a bitchy battle ensued. According to a Denver Post article from November 23, 1948, “Members of the new group have muttered such epithets as ‘tourist painter, Sunday painter, representationalist, amateur’ at their former friends and neighbors of the guild. Conservative members of the guild have found the work of the painters in the new group to be ‘freakish, childish, distorted, radical, silly.’ For the past two or three years feeling has run temperamentally high within the guild.” This was not long after the traditionalism vs. modernism debate began heating up on the East Coast, which was spurred during the Second World War when “degenerate artists” began fleeing to America in droves to escape the Nazis.

As far as contemporary work being created in Colorado now, I honestly can’t speak much of it because I am not a contemporary person and will only embarrass myself. However, there are a lot of really great artists that I do know of who have gained national and international renown, such as Xi Xhang, Lawrence Argent, Stacey Steers, and many others.

Denver is a cow town. I’m fairly certain the closest cows ever get to Denver is during the National Western Stock Show, and even then, that is closer to Commerce City than Denver. If we are going to talk literally about cow towns, Greeley is a good example. It is home to the Monfort Meat Packing plant. There are farms and ranches in Colorado, but not as many as one would think, especially given that Denver is referred to as a “cow town.”

The above statement further implies that Denver is full of a bunch of cowboys. In fact, people think that Colorado in general is populated by cowboys. And skiers. And hippies, but more on all that later. In 2011, Boulder was named by US News as the most educated city in America, and CNN Money listed Colorado as the #3 smartest state. Both of these studies are based on the amount of people who have college or graduate degrees. This is not to say that there are not cowboys with Ph.Ds (though I have yet to meet one), but people generally think that they are people who never went on to college. Furthermore, Colorado is full of all kinds of people: white collar and blue collar, urban and suburban, mountain and plains. And yes, there are some cowboys, just not nearly as many as is perceived.

Image from yellowmaps.com

Denver is in the mountains. We have a nice view of the mountains, but we’re actually about 30 minutes east. We’re also right on the edge of Tornado Alley and have gotten tornado sirens on occasion (and a couple touchdowns). If we were in the mountains, that would never happen.

Colorado is full of pot-smoking, ski-bum hippies. I’m pretty sure the hippy thing is because of the fact that Colorado was a popular place for Buddhism and communes in the ’60s, as I learned in West of Center. However, if we’re talking about hippies per capita, there is no denying that Boulder has a lot of hippy-esque people. But that’s Boulder, not Colorado at large. Anyway, let’s break down all of the descriptors in the above statement. Medical marijuana is legal in Colorado and there are numerous dispensaries, but medical marijuana is also legal in 16 other states. As for recreational use, I can’t really speak to it because I am not a smoker myself, but I don’t think it’s any more popular here than it is in, say, California. And yes, skiing is a popular sport here. However, many of the skiers are tourists who come to the ski resorts on vacation. Many Coloradans ski on occasion as well*, but I don’t know many who have ski passes, and even fewer who drop everything so they can hit the slopes. Why? Because ski passes are expensive and we have other things to do, like go to work.

* Note: This is based on my perception, as I do not know many people who ski, nor do I ski myself. However, there are others, such as my friend Kate, whose entire social circle is full of skiers. I personally get tired of people asking me if I ski as soon as they find out I’m a Colorado native, as though we all live on the mountains and strap skis on our feet to get anywhere, so I am a bit biased. But I digress: skiing is undeniably a popular Colorado pastime.

November in Washington Park.

There are 4 seasons in Colorado: winter, winter,  more winter, and construction. This one comes off of that old forward everyone emails to their friends that says “You know you’re from Colorado when…”. For the record, there are in fact four distinct and beautiful seasons here: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Snow will occasionally come early in the fall and strip the autumn leaves off the trees, and it will also sometimes snow when the apple blossoms are just coming out, stripping them off the trees as well. Nevertheless, we do have a Fall and a Spring, in addition to Winter and Summer. Summer is more popular for construction, but it often starts in Spring, and a lot of the time it goes well through the Winter.

Similarly, people always comment on the unpredictable weather or that one day it is snowing and the next day it is 70 degrees. While this happens, I really don’t think this is any more unpredictable than the weather in other states. It’s all dependent on the jet stream and other weather-related things I know very little about.

Colorado  = Denver. Colorado is an enormous state, and while Denver is the largest city with the most people, there are lots of other cities with their own unique histories and plenty of people, such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Durango…

Colorado is part of the Midwest. No. Just no.

Thanks to all my Facebook friends who helped me come up with more Colorado myths to bust!

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