The Best Art We Experienced in Denver for 2017

Looking back at this last year brings to mind a wealth of creative experiences. With all the political turmoil saturating news feeds, escaping into the realm of art has been a welcomed reprieve, even when that art has included commentary of said turmoil. Denver may be a smaller city, but the artistic community thrives — despite or because of that (depending on who you talk to). Here at 303 Magazine, we followed local and international artists, went to museums and galleries, took a road trip and attended performances to fully embrace Denver’s art scene, and we want to share some of our favorite art experiences from 2017. Check them out, categorized by month, below.

January – Phantom Circus

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Denver’s very own circus troupe started 2017 off with an extravagant three-hour performance at the Oriental Theater at the end of January, with aerial dancers, acrobatics and fire dancers. Owner and founder Natalie Brown has been a creative in many walks of life and this is her most recent passion. From tribal belly dancing lessons, Brown was introduced into the world of street shows and circus more in the vein of Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Brothers. Now, she’s coalesced a troupe of Colorado acrobats and other performers who grace the stage with incredible feats while showcasing a punk style. Shows by Phantom Circus occur every few months and a schedule for future ones can be found here.

Read: Created from Chaos, Colorado’s Phantom Circus Is a Force of Nature

*Honorable Mention: Review – “Fun Home” Deserves its Five Tony Awards

February -Basquiat, Ryan McGinley and Wall Writers at Museum of Contemporary Art

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MCA had to build new walls, print unprinted photographs, painstakingly arrange thousands of Polaroids and graffiti one of their staircases to open these three exhibitions— Basquiat Before Basquiat, Ryan McGinley’s The Kids Were Alright and Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence curated by Roger Gastman. The result was a conglomeration of sketchy, raw and revolutionary pieces. Each of these collections displays a moment in the evolution of DIY artist workspaces and the idea that art can be a lifestyle rather than a hobby. Altogether, they provided rich documentation of a movement in contemporary art that was inspired by a gritty reality and ultimately paved the way for artists to integrate their working and living spheres into one. Each of these art forms— from Basquiat’s use of his own apartment building as a canvas to McGinley’s back alley antics, to the rampant tagging that started graffiti— didn’t care if they offended audiences and the MCA did not shy away from this approach. Ryan McGinley’s portion of the exhibition stayed longer than the other two pieces, which must have been a relief since there were 1,763 individual polaroid pictures on the walls.

Read: MCA-Denver Debuts Its Biggest Opening With Gritty and Uncensored Exhibit

*Honorable Mention: Denver Artists Explore How to Make it as Artists in New Exhibit 

March – Knomad Colab at Red Rocks

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Knomad Colab—an artistic lighting design duo based in Denverdecided to take a guerrilla approach to artistic expression with a temporary “exhibition” on the west side of the Lower South parking lot at Red Rocks at the beginning of March this year. As with all of Knomad Colab’s pieces, this one aimed to create an environment within an environment by using lighting as a kind of ephemeral paint. Using four Gobo Projectors, and cutting strips and shapes from color gels, the duo constructed mosaics on a circle about an inch and a half in diameter, which was then projected several hundred feet to the rock wall. Though the preparation for this enormous piece of digital light graffiti was lengthy, there was a very short window of time to experience its glory— between when the sun set and security kicked us out (curfew at Red Rocks is sundown when shows aren’t going on). Regardless of how this particular temporary light show came to a screeching halt, the display emoted a sense of heightened energy — agitation, restlessness, excitement and yearning. With the warm tones — verging on colors one might find in Willy Wonka’s candy factory — and sharp, geometric shapes, the projection highlighted the organic curves of the rock behind it by contrast. Knomad Colab once again showed their ability to make a place feel really magical.

Read: Guerrilla Light Artists Illuminate Red Rocks with Digital Graffiti 

*Honorable Mention: This Must-See Art Exhibit Was Made With an iPhone and Dirty Curtains

April – Okuda San Miguel Paints International Church of Cannabis

The International Church of Cannabis. Photo courtesy of Okuda San Miguel.

On April 20, the International Church of Cannabis in Denver opened its doors to “adults looking to create the best version of themselves” through cannabis. But that was not all. The interior of the church was bursting with colors thanks to Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel, who painted the mural in less than a week with two assistants. The bears, a bull and two anthropomorphic birds created with geometric shapes and bright colors transformed the space into an art-lovers heaven. As an international artist, San Miguel’s work can be seen in Morocco, Ukraine and Greece to name a few. Though San Miguel does not partake in cannabis products himself, he agrees with the worldview of the International Church of Cannabis’ members, ‘elevationists.’ “This is super interesting,”San Miguel said about the project. “It’s nothing like what one would expect from a cannabis club. I hope to see more places like this in the future.”

Read: The Michelangelo of Cannabis – Meet Artist Okuda San Miguel 

*Honorable Mention: A Monumental Ode to Calder at Denver Botanic Gardens

May – Blue Trees by Konstantin Dimopoulos

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At the end of April, New Zealand-born artist Konstantin Dimopoulos visited Denver to paint trees blue. Like a real life Lorax, Dimopoulos wants to call attention to global deforestation, painting trees blue in 19 cities, including Breckenridge. His hopes are that by changing the typical look of trees people walk by often, he can garner enough attention to the endangerment of trees the world over. The blue dye he uses is a specific formula he created with the help of a laboratory in Australia, in order to be certain the dye would not negatively effect the trees or the immediate surrounding environment. Over time, anywhere from a few months to a year, the blue dissipates from the bark, leaving very little trace. Dimopoulos also makes sure he never paints a tree in stress, which led him to avoid many trees along 14th and Curtis. When 303 Magazine spoke with Dimopoulos during his stay in Denver, he commented, “people get incredibly attached to the trees in their city, the new growth. But the old growth is disappearing because it’s thousands of miles away from home, out-of-sight… So I paint the trees blue in order to represent a kind-of Munch-ian ‘scream’ from the new growth city forests for their old growth counterparts. If people care about the trees close to home they should care even more about the trees that are disappearing at alarming rates far from home because those are more essential to our survival. Shocking people with the bright blue paint is just a way to focus attention on the bigger issues.”

Read: The Real Life Lorax Talks About Painting Trees Blue in Denver

*Honorable Mention: Denver Feminist Festival Celebrates 10 Years at MCA This Weekend

June  – Painting with the Sun in Boulder

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Colorado-based artist Michael Papadakis knows how to paint with rainbows. He uses parabolic mirrors and handcrafted lenses to magnify sunlight onto a piece of wood, creating beautiful photorealistic images. 303 Magazine had the opportunity to travel to Chautauqua Park in Boulder to witness the process this summer and ask Papadakis all about his talent, which he coined as “heliography.” Just like the art form itself, Papadakis is unconventional. When he talked about heliography it was obvious how much he experiments with and researches it. With every piece— whether it be a sign for a business, a protest, a gift for a friend— he films a time-lapse video of the process to share with the recipients and his online fans. About the art form, Papadakis said, “I think heliography is one form of therapy for so many different types of ailments. In a society where things slow down, we are going to need to learn how to slow down with it and I think this could be something that can help with that transition. Learning patience and understanding and seeing that everything is revolving and so are we.” Papadakis’ heliography company is called Sunscribes.

Read: This Colorado Artist Paints with Actual Rainbows  

*Honorable Mention: Denver Art Museum Unveils Outdoor “Musical Chairs” Exhibit for the Summer

July – Pop-up Park Painted by So-Gnar Creative Division

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The Square on 21st, as it was coined, was a pop-up park occupying 21st Street in Denver between June 15 and August 15. With ping pong tables, food and drink carts, a mini farmer’s market and a transportable dog park, the pop-up park provided a little refuge amidst the asphalt and buildings surrounding it. Before the park opened to the public, a local group of street artists known as the So-Gnar Creative Division painted a mural on the street which will last almost five years— a lot longer than typical street art and certainly longer than the park itself existed. There were a few restrictions to the mural paintings, like avoiding red and yellows for driver safety, but other than that So-Gnar was allowed a certain amount of creative freedom. With some Colorado pride and a nice helping of inspiration from nature and geometry, they painted a beautiful design that any apartment owner nearby should be happy about.

Read: Get A Look at Denver’s First Pop-up Park

*Honorable Mention: Review – Dita Von Teese Seduces Denver with “The Art of the Teese” 

August – Denver Art Museum Refugee Photography

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Fazal Sheikh, an internationally recognized artist who has been photographing marginalized and displaced communities for decades, displayed an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) titled Common Ground: The Photographs of Fazal Sheikh, 1989 to 2013. Through his photographs and first-hand accounts from the people he displays, Sheikh provided a timely exhibition for the current political climate in regards to refugees. With his exhibit, viewers witnessed a stripped back version of those living in exile across the world and were given ways to connect with them. By removing the pretenses of what others say it is to be a refugee, Sheikh allowed the subjects of his photographs to be the real activists for their causes. He wanted to create a shared experience between the people seeing the photographs and the people living the photographs — to create common ground. Seeing the faces of people isn’t enough for Sheikh, who also provided stories and written first-hand accounts paired with many of the photographs or series. The combination of encountering faces and knowing their history gave me goosebumps, and a sense of gratitude for being in an art museum as an onlooker.

Read: DAM Brings the Lives of Refugees to Denver with Heart-Wrenching Photography Exhibit

*Honorable Mention: Review – The Wild, Absurd and Hilarious Moments at High Plains Comedy Festival 2017

September – CRUSH

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The annual street art festival in the RiNo Art District called CRUSH occurred as a week-long event this year, rather than the typical two-day format. Along with increased the duration, the festival organizers also secured a larger footprint, creating access to 100 walls for street artists from around the world. The festival stretched down RiNo’s main street, Larimer, reached west toward the alleys between Blake and Walnut, and north to 40th Street by the Denver Rock Drill. Internationally recognized artists— like Inkie, Mr. Cenz, Mr. June and Hoxxoh brought even more attention to the event outside of Denver. Local artists were represented as well, like Mike Graves, Jaime Molina, Anna Charney, Debbie Clapper and Detour 303 to name a few. The camaraderie among the artists was palpable, with after parties and other artist-centric events occurring during the week. “I love the festival because it’s like when we were younger and went back to school after the summer. You get to see all these friends you don’t see any other time,” said Ozjuah Sepia, a Denver street artist participating in CRUSH for the third year.

Read: [PHOTOS] What You Missed From CRUSH 2017

*Honorable Mention: Meet the International Artists Who Painted Denver Elementary Schools for Free

October – Shantell Martin’s Sidewalk Painting

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Organized as part of the Terra Firma series by the Denver Theatre District, London-born artist Shantell Martin‘s sidewalk paintings from Champa to Stout along 14th Avenue are her largest undertaking yet. Martin’s art is a freehanded collaboration of doodles and designs that pulls viewers in with familiarity, then keeps them hooked with a bizarre need to create their own story. Because each piece is relatively unplanned, Martin also goes on a journey with each of her pieces, finding a new thought pattern or idea with each line and dot she draws. It’s a stream-of-consciousness style of art that many people relate to because there is no requirement for understanding it. It’s aesthetically simple — composed of black doodles on white backgrounds — but the simplicity of design allows her to more directly communicate with her audience. Her work is described on her website as “a language of characters that invite her viewers to share in her creative process” — an act that is done when the viewer must find their own way through the unique map of lines and drawings that have no obvious origin or destination. Not only was this her largest artwork, it was the first she painted on the ground and she used spray paint rather than her usual choice of permanent marker. A bench she designed, which reads “DON’T HIDE + YOU ME” was installed in front of the entrance to Understudy. The paint used on the sidewalk was tested by Martin and the team at NINE dot ARTS for over a year before the painting occurred, and the mural should last for at least a few years with normal wear and tear.  

Read: [PHOTOS] Shantell Martin Paints Sidewalks in Downtown Denver

*Honorable Mention: The Wild Party Lived Up to the Promise of Its Name

November – Gas Light Love Bomb at K Contemporary Gallery

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Scott Young, a Denver artist who works with neon and other gas-lit art, created a one-month only exhibition for a new gallery called K Contemporary. His show, Gas Light Love Bomb, explored the trends behind romance in a technological era. The exhibition was like going to a nightclub and going to therapy— at once sexy and psychologically challenging. Split into three “acts”— Possibility, Reason, Disillusion—of what Young believes every relationship goes through at some point and accentuated by his slightly narcissistic worldview. Curated in a way that highlights the seamless transition between these acts, the show entranced many visitors who often took photos using their phones, in an unintentional nod to Young’s thematic inspiration. Branching away from his previous work, Young used krypton and argon gases as well as neon, changed the pressure of the pumped gas, and built plinths to hold the largest pieces. On two occasions during the exhibition, K Contemporary hosted Young with an artist talk and a special temporary installation using dry ice and nitrogen. This is the beginning of a fruitful career for Young and a sought-after gallery for K Contemporary, which took over the space that used to be Mike Wright Gallery at 14th and Wazee in Downtown.

Read: A New Denver Gallery Opens With Scott Young’s Vibrant, Sexy Gas-Lit Art

*Honorable Mention: The Best Movies We Saw at Denver Film Festival 2017, By Genre

December – Art Vending Machine

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Denver-based artist Jonathan Saiz is confronting the idea that owning original art is only for the one-percenters with a unique concept. His six-sided kiosk, an “art vending machine” of sorts, will offer hundreds of his mini oil paintings to the public throughout the month of December. The hexagonal kiosk features six windows with different designs that display a single two-square inch painting. When someone takes one of the paintings, Saiz will replace the empty space with a new and original design. Each oil painting will be $20, but the purchaser is not allowed to give the money at the time they take the oil painting— instead, they will leave their email address and their promise to pay in the future. The experimental art vending machine is designed entirely by Saiz, but is made possible through the support and space at Understudy in the Colorado Convention Center. Part of the inspiration came from Saiz’s disgust at the global economic models for art, where 100 million dollar investment portfolios are considered the only way to be successful, and the other part came from his desire to “democratize” art distribution by creating a direct channel from artist to purchaser.

Read: A Denver Artist is Now Selling His Work From an “Art Vending Machine” for $20

*Honorable Mention: 38th Street Underpass Now Beautifully Illuminated with New Light Art

Bonus – Meow Wolf

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Okay, so Meow Wolf isn’t in Denver (yet) but the drive to Santa Fe is only six hours and we think it’s more than worth it. The 30,000 square foot complex is not only entertaining in ways better left experienced than explained, it’s a conglomeration of hundreds of artists’ work that changes over time. Visual artists, sculptors, actors, dancers, writers and sound engineers are a few of the designations for the artists involved in the immersive project, partially funded by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin (a Santa Fe resident) and a crowdfunding campaign. From the moment you walk into the simulation— called the House of Eternal Return— you will be transported to many bizarre dimensions. There is only one explanation for the chaotic, psychedelic and fascinating mess, but in order to find it you will be on a scavenger hunt throughout the installation. If you don’t need an explanation, then you’ll have just as much fun wandering through the space, getting lost and having trippy adventures. Our advice is to avoid weekend crowds and possibly arrange your visit around one of the concerts they throw within the House of Eternal Return.

Read: Why Meow Wolf is Worth the Hype (And the 6 Hour Drive)