When the history of 21st century Colorado art is written, Tank Studios is sure to appear in the first few pages. The artist-run space has served as the workplace for more than 30 of the Denver area’s most prolific, and progressive, visual artists, a collection of painters, sculptors, printers, photographers and whatever-makers who have largely defined the regional art scene of their time.
Tank is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and the occasion is being marked by an exhibition titled “Like Like” in the Rotunda Gallery on the campus of the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. It’s a fitting site for this show because Tank stands as an example of how professional artists can work together to sustain their careers in a way that other creatives — including the scores of eager, next-gen artists studying at RMCAD — can actually follow.
It would be easy to talk about this show just on the merit of the artists involved because so many are familiar names on the local landscape. Indeed, they are people I have followed and written about with some frequency over the past decade. Among them: Derrick Velasquez, Laura Shill, Jaime Carrejo, Mario Zoots, Margaret Neumann, Amber Cobb, Ian Fisher and Joel Swanson.
But “Like Like” works best if you know just a little about the backstory of Tank so you get the connection between the artists, the work and, thinking in larger terms, the city of Denver.
Tank came along just as gentrification of the 2010s was beginning to push artists out of the downtown spaces they had occupied for years. RiNo, LoDo and areas farther north in the city emerged as hotbeds of high-end development, which left little room in those neighborhoods for the low-rent studios that catered to artists.
There was a lot of upheaval and a lot of whining — much of it legit, some of it sour grapes — but few good suggestions on how artists could fit into a fancier Denver. The nine artists that started Tank came up with heir own solution.
In the fall of 2012, they found a space in a distinctly non-hipster part of South Denver, at 1474 S. Acoma St., and worked with the owner to carve out a maze of 10 work areas. Soon after, they expanded their space to include 19 separate studios.
The artists operate Tank as an LLC, each serving two-year stints as business manager. Tank is not a nonprofit, but it doesn’t try to make money either; rents are set at a rate that brings in enough cash to keep the bills paid. Tank still has a landlord to negotiate with but, by and large, artists are in control of their own destiny, which is rare for a shared space.
Importantly, Tank was set up with an open plan design — there are no doors between the studios. That encouraged a high level of organic collaboration and shared criticism that these artists say made their work better. At the same time, it encouraged a loose group of lost souls to become very good friends. The artists are close — they “like like” each other as Gretchen Marie Schaefer, a Tank artist and curator of the current show, puts it.
That tale serves as the narrative for “Like Like.” The pieces are not linked through any theme or cause. The show is simply one from this artist and one from that artist.
Yet, it is more than a roll call, and there are cohesive strains pulling things together. One of them, at least for the many people who have followed the art scene here, is nostalgia. These are artists we have all watched and evolved with together and there is a sense that this outing defines Denver at its best.
The other is quality and — however you define that in art — it is in the room at “Like Like,” and that makes this exhibition a good option for people who don’t necessarily keep up with the latest trends here. This is a small, yet handsomely-arranged assemblage of objects that are thoughtful and well-made. It feels professional.
Painting is rarely more interesting than Neumann’s “Afternoon Cherries,” a five-foot-square still life oil on canvas. It is, as the title implies, a bowl of cherries, yet Neumann manages to give each individual piece of fruit a personality of its own and creates an environment for her subject that feels both domestic and other-worldly. It’s a piece you stare at.
There are two finely wrought, three-dimensional pieces from artist Mia Mulvey that complement each other visually. One is made from delicate porcelain and colored a bright, artificial orange. The other is raw and natural and made from actual salt. Both show how influences of human hands and nature come together to make art.
There are serious contemplative pieces, like “Diversion,” a collage by Zoots made of cut-and-folded vintage photographs. The piece teases viewers by suggesting unknown narratives about the people in the pictures, but never really completes their stories.
There are also a few moments of wonder, and even humor. Natascha Seideneck presents a long shelf full of a dozen or so mysterious objects, each set under a glass dome, and none more than five inches tall. Some of the objects are straightforward, such as simple rocks and plants, while others appear to be fiction, like the “radioactive mushrooms,” “space debris” and “plastic-eating caterpillars.” Viewers can decide what is real and what is not.
There’s also Sarah Wallace Scott’s “Your Failure,” a series of paper sculptures fashioned into dying house plants. Each comes with one of those plastic stakes nurseries use to designate species — only these are labeled to underscore where humans fall short. One is called “Sobriety,” another “Monogamy.”
There is some experimenting, especially from familiar players, like Velasquez, Fisher, Trey Duvall, Alicia Ordal and Nick Silici. Each puts forward something outside of what we’re used to seeing from them.
“Like Like” does not break any new ground, and in some ways it feels thrown together. I’ve seen several of the works in shows already; it is definitely not a room full of surprises.
Still, it feels crucial. It documents an important moment in time for regional culture. At the same time, it presents some terrific pieces of art to enjoy. It’s a casual outing with an interesting story at its core, and it is full of talent.
“Like Like” continues through Feb. 3 at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, 1600 Pierce St. It’s free. Info: rmcad.edu.
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