Denver’s Anthony Garcia Sr. makes leap from street art to fine art look easy in Arvada Center show

Anthony Garcia Sr. is one of the most influential — and, arguably, most important — artists working in Denver today. His best-known pieces — large-scale public murals, which riff on the sharp colors and horizontal stripes of serape textiles — are visible on buildings and bridges across the city and carry with them a rich, dual meaning.

Not only do they reflect the artist’s own mix of Mexican and American roots, they also mirror Denver at this very moment in time as the city itself transitions fully into a blend of genealogies from up and down the hemisphere. They are both loud expressions of personal identity and optimistic billboards announcing that the multicultural metropolis has arrived.

Denver, one of the birthplaces of the Chicano movement, has a decades-long history of public murals proclaiming its diversity, and Garcia’s work builds on that and, in some ways, brings it to maturity, at least from a 21st century, contemporary-art perspective where abstraction rules the day.

We tend to think of public murals as figurative works, drawing their lineage from Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose massive offerings were distinguished by representational images of humans and the human struggle. Garcia is clearly influenced by those painters, especially when it comes to scale and social commentary.

But his work also reflects the experiences of any thirty-something artist who toils in the wake of game-changing modernists, like Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Gunther Gerso or Carlos Mérida (whose painting was the highlight of the Denver Art Museum’s recent “Mexican Modernism” show). It is easy to see the impact of geometric abstraction and the Color Field movement on his work.

Perhaps that is why Garcia’s creations shift so naturally into the indoor setting of the Arvada Center art galleries, where his showcase of recent works, titled “Pigment,” is on display through Aug. 28. They look similar to the line-and-color-based work that is so frequently seen in white cube spaces.

Only they are smaller that what we expect to see from this particular artist, and contained on canvases rather than splashed over walls, hallways or garage doors. They are lit for optimal viewing rather than left to the good or bad fortune of natural sunlight.

And they reveal Garcia to be as likable an intimate studio artist as he is a showy public expressionist. It is a huge leap from “street” art to “fine” art, where things go under the microscope, but Garcia makes it look easy.

That is because he knows himself and — most important for anyone who visits the show — he knows that we know him. That is to say, he stays on this trademark ground of connecting horizontal gradients into paintings and then takes it up a notch. He experiments and plays with this relatable style and because we are so familiar with his work, we can all play along with him.

The works in Arvada are largely still his “serape paintings,” but Garcia does not limit himself to the obvious hues or functions of serape blankets or cloaks. Instead, he experiments.

Which allows him to reinterpret the reds, oranges, golds and greens of traditional serapes as a series of shades of blue, as he does with the acrylic-on-canvas piece “Whirlpool.” The work looks less like a Mexican poncho and more like an abstract rendering of the ocean, with the blues going from light to dark as they travel down the surface, just as the color of water does as it gets farther from the light.

If you go

Anthony Garcia Sr., “Pigments,” continues through Aug. 28 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. It’s free. Info: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.

It allows him to loosen the rigidity of the serape’s hard edges, as he does with the piece titled “Pigment,” (like the show’s title), where the horizontal lines are wavy and fluid and the colors blend rather than being forced into separate spaces.

It allows him to turns things 90 degrees, so the serape lays on its side, and to add in unexpected colors, like purple, lime green and florescent blue, as he does with the piece “Eleven Days.” The painting has a psychedelic flair.

The playfulness doesn’t stop there. Garcia renders his serape style in numerous other ways. There’s a multi-dimensional wall relief titled “Denver Health”; a piece titled “Red Ribbon” that folds over itself numerous times, revealing both sides of the canvas to be painted; and even an animated video projected on the wall, which Garcia made in collaboration with digital artist Justin Gitlin, and where the colors and shapes shift and the geometry is in constant motion.

Garcia does venture farther away from the serape for a few pieces, which are placed at the end of the exhibition. These acrylics, mostly in blue and gold and bordering on figurative, aren’t as confident; they feel like concepts in formation rather than fully fleshed-out ideas. But they are good to see in the mix. An artist cannot paint in the same style his whole career and stay fresh, so Garica is showing us where he might evolve next. It’s a gift to let us in on this process, and it will be fascinating to see where this new direction ends up.

Plus, they only add to the pleasure of “Pigment” as an exhibition because they seal the deal on our status as insiders to Garcia’s progress. Rarely do we walk into an exhibition of a local artist’s work and already feel at home with it, comfortable enough to go on an actual journey with the artist.

Garcia’s art tends to get overshadowed by his personal story, which nearly always comes first when he is discussed publicly and which, in the case of this review, is purposely left to last.

He was born and raised in Globeville, one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, and brought himself along in the art world, starting as a graffiti artist and working up to the large public commissions that have made him known and popular.

He has almost hero status in Globeville because he has stayed there when other successful types have left it behind. He founded and leads the nonprofit the Birdseed Collective, which runs a local rec center and which offers arts and sports programs for local kids and operates a free food pantry every week.

He’s an advocate for the arts and an effective agitator in his neighborhood where developers are swooping in and displacement has become the norm and, because of that, he is something a political and social powerhouse in Denver. He is, as I like to say, the new model for the artist-citizen in the 21st century.

But in this exhibition, organized by the Arvada Center staff with a keen awareness of Garcia’s talents, that bio is just a part of the story. Here he is artist first, activist second. He is just a guy, testing the limits of those “Pigments” and inviting us to frolic along.

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