Aspen’s Gonzo Gallery goes out with a bang

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Hunter S. Thompson's shotgun art self-portrait is among the works in the final exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery, opening Saturday night.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Shotgun Art,’ artwork by Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs and Paul Pascarella

Where: Gonzo Gallery, 625 E. Hyman Ave.

When: Opening Saturday, March 26, 6-10 p.m.

More info:

The Gonzo Gallery will open its last show this weekend, beginning the final run of a pop-up institution that, since last summer, both exhibited art and served as a refuge for the vestiges of Aspen’s counterculture.

The Hyman Avenue gallery is slated to close April 15, as curator D.J. Watkins’ temporary lease agreement with building owners Andy and Nikos Hecht expires.

For its swan song, the gallery is showcasing shotgun art by Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs and Paul Pascarella.

“It’s bittersweet, thinking about this being the last show,” Watkins, 32, said Wednesday as he hung the exhibition.

Watkins said he’s open to resurrecting the Gonzo Gallery in some form in Aspen at a later date. But given the prohibitively expensive downtown rents, that’s unlikely to happen unless the Hechts or another downtown landlord make him a deal (the Hechts rented him the space in the new Hyman building last year at a nominal price as they searched for a tenant).

The shotgun art show traces the evolution of the form, in which artists literally shoot canvases, from Burroughs in the mid-1980s, to Thompson’s adoption of the art style through the 1990s — the writers collaborated on some shotgun pieces — and up to works by Pascarella made as recently as a few weeks ago when the New Mexico-based artist and former Aspenite was in town for his solo show at the Gonzo.

It includes nine shotgun pieces by Pascarella, eight by Burroughs and two by Thompson. They appear in conversation with each other, using not only the same gunfire blasts but some linked imagery – like the Disney cartoons in Pacarella and Thompson pieces, and political figures like First Lady Nancy Reagan in Burroughs’ “Mink Mutiny” and Sen. Ted Cruz in Pascarella’s “Cruzin’.”

A self-portrait by Thompson shows red paint splattering from a hole in the middle of a picture of him golfing on a local course.

“Subtlety is really the hallmark of my art,” Thompson once quipped of his shotgun style.

Burroughs, the Beat Generation writer and author of “Naked Lunch,” was from Lawrence, Kansas — also Watkins’ hometown.

Last summer, Watkins was granted access to the Burroughs archive in Lawrence and chose eight of his best-regarded shotgun pieces to show at the Gonzo Gallery. Those works — priced as high as $60,000 — have toured museums around the world. They’ve been boxed up in the gallery since the fall as Watkins thought through how he wanted to exhibiti them.

One of the earliest shows at the Gonzo — in its former location, also in a Hecht-owned building on Hyman, which operated from February 2012 to April 2013 — was a shotgun art show of work by Thompson and Burroughs. So closing it down with a show incorporating more highly esteemed pieces in that style seemed fitting to Watkins.

“It’s like the work I’ve shown before, on an elevated level — and it coalesced around the recent work that Paul was doing,” Watkins said. “This show is a culmination of all my experiences here, in that I wouldn’t have had access to these Burroughses in the beginning, or been able to work with Paul — so I thought it was a cool way to go out with a bang.”

Along with showing work by emerging artists and greats from Thompson’s realm like Pascarella, Tom Benton and Ralph Steadman, the Gonzo quickly became a community gathering place and clubhouse when it opened last summer. Former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis was a fixture there, and openings would see Braudis and veterans of Aspen’s counterculture 1970s heyday rubbing shoulders with the young ski bums and artists of Watkins’ generation and a cross-section of Aspen that’s rare in the local gallery scene.

“It’s been great to see the young energy mixed with the old freaks,” Braudis said. “There aren’t a whole lot of old freaks left. And it’s edifying to be asked about the story of what happened here in the past. I was a history major. Now I’m history.”

Politics have been a rallying cry there as much as art. Regular talks, dubbed “Liberty Salons,” brought overflow crowds for discussions on law enforcement, conservation, activism and Hunter Thompson’s legacy in Aspen.

While it would stretch the imagination to find common ground between the tenor of those conversations and the aggressive downtown developments of the building’s owners, Watkins gave the Hechts credit for providing the community that formed around the Gonzo a place in Aspen.

“I need to thank them for their contribution to bringing a little bit of that old counterculture Aspen back into the fold,” Watkins said. “Because we’re not going to go hang out in Fendi.”


As he prepares to close up shop at the Gonzo, Watkins has a few creative irons in the fire.

He is soliciting museums around the country in the hopes of touring the Gonzo’s monumental “Freak Power” exhibition. The show opened last July and included with more than 100 pieces of art and ephemera related to Thompson’s 1970 run for Pitkin County sheriff. Watkins amassed it over several years, beginning as he researched his 2011 book, “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist.”

Watkins said he has identified 45 top-tier museums where he thinks the show could be a good fit, and has teamed with local gallerist David Floria to get the word out nationally.

“It would raise awareness, it would preserve Hunter’s legacy and expose a more significant side of his life — and I feel like once I close this place I can focus on pushing that forward,” he said.

Watkins self-published an elegant art book, also titled “Freak Power,” coinciding with that show and the opening of the Gonzo. Because he opened the gallery as he released the book, he hasn’t yet gone on a national book tour, which he hopes to do this year.

Through his publishing entity, Meat Possum Press — which borrows its name from the one Thompson and Benton used to print their Aspen Wallposters — he is working on releasing an updated and illustrated edition of “To Aspen and Back,” former Aspen Times columnist Peggy Clifford’s seminal 1980 history of the town.

Once the gallery goes dark, Watkins said, he’ll step back and plot his next move. His goal, stated with a smirk in characteristically radical terms: “I want to foment global revolution.”