S.P.Q.R. is wrecked. The art gallery/event center/studio fills many needs, and they've all come out to play today. Art supplies — drawing boards, a tangle of easels — file along the walls, while spotlights, amps and coils of cords take over near the front door. There are skulls nesting throughout, an extra perched on the shoulder of a full skeleton.
May's art show is hung and almost ready, carefully mounted above the melee. It's Cymon Padilla's second solo show, and the 32-year-old local's work brightens the space. His pieces teem with references to art history — a nod to Odd Nerdrum here, to "Piss Christ" over there. In a surreal, Napoleonic take, Justin Bieber rides a zebra in an icy, electric-blue landscape. The Biebs is clutching a wee monkey, and basking in a flood of light from an angelic Snuggle the Fabric Softener Bear, who's descended from the heavens above.
Rodney Wood looks around, and what he sees is something beautiful. This kind of place, a place to foster growing talent, wasn't around when Wood was a fixture — educator, advocate and an artist primarily dedicated to jewelry and sculpture — in the Pikes Peak region. The way he remembers it, Colorado Springs would see sporadic moments of activity, and only a few galleries and institutions actively rotating and hosting shows.
It's part of the reason why he moved to New Mexico about a decade ago.
"When I was leaving," he says, "there wasn't a quote-unquote arts scene."
If what's here now isn't exactly Portland, at least it includes a place like S.P.Q.R. Two places, actually, when you add in its adjoining sister gallery, the Modbo. And it has someone intent on keeping those places as unpredictable, quirky and aspirational as they are.
"The one thing I would say for sure," Wood says, "is that the young artists in that community would be sucking wind without Brett."
Brett, of course, is Brett Andrus, who owns and runs the Modbo, along with S.P.Q.R., with his wife Lauren. This Friday, June 5, Wood will pair up with Andrus for their first joint exhibition: Reciprocity, to mark the Modbo's seventh birthday.
The show would mean a lot just given their strengths as painters. But it means much more locally because of the continuum of artistic ambition it represents.
Six years ago, Andrus met Wood just before the latter's first-ever show of painted works, which happened in the same space now adorned with Justin Bieber's image, when it was Rubbish Gallery.
At that point, Wood was four years out of the Springs. Disenchantment with the arts community was one factor, but Wood, now 64, also remembers it this way: "I needed to get the hell out of here or I had perpetual obligations. Every week there's an opening, every week there's a class, every week there's an expectation ... but I had little time to make my own art."
Wood ran Thunderstruck Gallery in Old Colorado City from 1995 to 2002, but even after it closed, he directed the Business of Art Center (since renamed the Manitou Art Center); juried shows for entities such as the Colorado State Fair; and taught students everywhere from the Colorado Springs Conservatory to the now-defunct nonprofit FutureSelf.
As an artist, teacher and new gallery owner himself, Andrus found that he and Wood had a lot in common. They enjoyed marathon conversations on all things art, and when the show was over and Wood left, they stayed in touch.
"Rodney to me is one of my idols in terms of just what he paints, how he paints and how he works," says the 37-year-old Andrus. "To me, I see him as a mentor ... as a gallery owner, but also as an art maker."
Wood's paintings often look like dreams, and that's where they come from. "I don't do drugs," Wood says. "I just take a nap."
On canvas, his dreams materialize in breathtaking detail. For instance, a Medusa-like woman gets some softer treatment in Wood's hands; she's still got her dark hair, but lime green snakes writhe on her crown and cascade to her bare shoulders. Monarch butterflies swarm delicately around her, their warm orange wings the same color as her eyes. Somehow, she looks like someone you would know.
In "Evanescence," a woman is spirited away on the backs of great blue herons flying at cruising altitude. The woman (actually modeled by Lauren) is asleep, undisturbed by the flapping of wings around her, or the storm clouds just below, which turn from white to gray to purple. She rests heavily, peacefully, on the cluster of feathers around her.
"I always go, 'How the fuck did he do that? Seriously?'" Andrus says with a laugh. "It's mind-boggling. There's a level of craft-meets-concept and an emotional concept that I can't help but love and geek out on."
Like Wood, Andrus paints in the narrative, figurative realm, and he often paints women. Usually in their undergarments, his subjects are often tangled in a group or with a household object. "Mama Bear" finds one such woman in a panda hood sitting in a washtub with a handful of tiny pandas in fezes tumbling at her feet. There's an industrial feel to Andrus' style, but it's hardly chilly; Mama Bear herself is pulling a playful, disarming face.
"The Conversationalist" finds another woman holding a tea party with herself. She's sitting somewhere mysterious, just a platform covered in fabric and a cornflower-blue background absorbing her. She's pulled off one of her striped socks and made a puppet of it, allowing for conversation among it, herself and another sock on her right hand. The only other elements there are three half-full teacups and a pot. Enough for everybody.
"We dip our toes in the same kind of soup, they're just on two different burners," Andrus says of the two artists' styles. "And I want to make one common soup out of those two dips, does that make sense? And get them to live together and play with each other. I think there's going to be some interaction there."
The two didn't coordinate their paintings for Reciprocity, and in fact, not all the works are even new. But Wood is confident in the pairing regardless.
"You can go to some shows, and they're so cohesive, the show's so cool, it becomes an installation," Wood says. "They resonate with each other to where the whole room becomes a piece. I think that that's going to happen with us."
The Modbo is small, it's in an alley, and it's only open Friday evenings — but that's the point. If it moved to a more prominent location, costs would go up. Higher costs mean you've got to push more art, and that can end up dictating what gets shown.
"If they've got these huge overheads," says Wood of more traditional galleries, "how experimental can they be?"
Thunderstruck sold one-of-a-kind jewelry and sculpture and hosted, among other shows, one of the first Sean O'Meallie exhibits. "It was very industrial, very cool, hip," he says of his space. "I mean, not a single elk painting or Pikes Peak sunset to be found."
Thunderstruck closed due to a variety of factors, including the loss of key inventory items that helped Wood during lean times, as well as a customer base that changed over the years.
Getting by on the down-low, as the Modbo does, means young artists can have a platform to experiment and fail. A show that doesn't sell much isn't a big deal, especially since it gives exposure to someone who maybe couldn't have found it anywhere else in the city.
To see how important artistic freedom is to Andrus, you can just look at his personal life.
"That's why I have my day job," Andrus says. "Being in the mortgage business allows me to paint whatever the heck I want to paint." (Disclosure: He helped me buy my house.)
Reciprocity won't be the most experimental show in Modbo's history; in fact, it's probably not even as risky as Padilla's May Remix. But it's rife with symbols and hints at allegory, and very open to interpretation.
"My job, provide words; viewer job, provide sentences," Andrus says. "There [are] three people in that conversation: There's the artist, the piece, and there's the viewer. And if you don't have the viewer as part of the conversation, you're basically, um, masturbating with your piece."
The aim is to make viewers feel more comfortable in the gallery, and in their role as the third part of that conversation. More than anything else, it's license to take away from a work whatever it is you feel about it. And it doesn't have to be positive.
Consider that Wood wasn't always smitten with Andrus' early paintings. "His early humans were like — [you know how] everyone who's had plastic surgery looks like they're all from the same family? A lot of them really looked like they were from the same family. Maybe not identical, but from the same family. And over the years they've become more and more individual and personal."
He goes on: "I'm fascinated to watch him as an artist and watch him grow and also watch him succeed in pulling off the impossible over and over again. As a gallery owner and as an artist."
Wood now lives in Trinidad, and has for four years. He paints, operates his gallery/studio Galerie Vivante, runs the annual ArtoCade art car festival, and also teaches art to men in the correctional system, among other pursuits.
In the Springs, Andrus puts in his 40-hour work week, then teaches art classes six nights a week for the Modbo's art school, while also playing in five local bands. He and Lauren are heavily invested in downtown, working with the Downtown Partnership, sitting on various boards, and organizing events like free summer concerts in Acacia Park. Beyond curating monthly shows in both galleries, he curates eight other locales throughout the city.
"I actually like that kind of frenetic, abstract, random type of pace," Andrus says. "This is a life that I really wanted to create."
Wood sighs. "Get 'em while they're young."
Despite his own experience, Wood says he doesn't worry about Brett or Lauren burning out. "Because even if they burned out they'd recover within three months and do something else," he says with a chuckle. "That's their nature, that's part of what's irreplaceable."
Andrus says he isn't tired yet. The galleries are doing well, and even aesthetically, his personal brand of art is seeing more mass appeal after decades of conceptual, nonrepresentational popularity.
"Like, a publication like Juxtapoz just put out a really great book, it's called Hyperreal, and it's a collection of probably close to 30 international painters that explore the figure, both in portrait, also in narrative," Andrus says. "They're all probably in their late 20, early 30s, into their 40s and 50s, and there's this new kind of rebirth of good painting."
Which is exciting to both of these artists, though they won't discount anything that shows effort and creativity, heart and authenticity. Andrus even offers that he's got "a lot of respect" for the late Thomas Kinkade, the much-bashed "painter of light" who achieved mainstream popularity.
"There's some of it that is completely shmarmy, just completely garbage," he says, "but there was a lot of work that was able to connect. And it's weird to say that about that guy. He gets a bad little rap, but he's ... like, Banksy to me is the Thomas Kinkade of hipsters. Say that to a kid who's 22 years old, and watch their head explode. Make them really pissy."
"One of my favorite articles that I ever wrote was comparing Thomas Kinkade and Marcel Duchamp," Wood chimes in. "Pushing the edge of what's considered art, they were both doing that."
When Andrus and Wood talk together, virtually any topic can lead to mentions of names like these — from Rosetti to Motherwell to Duchamp and back. They tend to talk over each other, each excited to elaborate on the other's thought. It's like an audible version of that visual resonance Wood alluded to earlier.
In fact, when they talk about encouraging a new generation of local artists, you can imagine that Wood's voice from 20 years ago is channeling through Andrus today.
"It's so important that you support your young artists, because if you don't support your young artists, they leave and move to Denver and think Denver's great, and then we lose that next generation of makers," Andrus says.
He goes on: "I need somebody to step in and take over my maker position here in a minute. I need a new generation to come and open up some kick-ass art galleries that puts us out of business. That would be awesome. Then I could take a vacation."