Gonzo Gallery returns to Aspen
If You Go …
What: ‘Freak Power’ art exhibition
Where: The Gonzo Gallery, 627 Hyman Ave.
When: Opening 6 p.m. Friday, July 24
How much: Free
More info: www.freakpower.com
A 100-piece art exhibition focusing on writer Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for Pitkin County sheriff will open the resurrected and relocated Gonzo Gallery this weekend.
The gallery is the brainchild of D.J. Watkins, a local art collector and author of “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist,” a 2011 book about the Aspen painter and printmaker who created the iconic “Thompson for Sheriff” posters.
Titled “Freak Power,” the show chronicles Aspen from the hippie incursion of the 1960s through Thompson’s 1970 run against Sheriff Carrol Whitmire and his campaign for limiting development, legalizing drugs, disarming law enforcement and protecting open space, which Thompson himself immortalized in his story “Freak Power in the Rockies.”
The exhibition includes campaign materials, the Benton-Thompson “Aspen Wall Poster” series, campaign trail photographs from David Hiser and Bob Krueger, along with newsletters, newspaper clippings and Gonzo ephemera of the day.
Previously housed in Benton’s former studio on Hyman Avenue, the Gonzo Gallery has moved a block away into a recently completed building next to the Aspen Art Museum. Similar to the old space, the building is owned by local developers Nikos and Andy Hecht, who have rented it to Watkins short-term for a nominal price.
On Thursday afternoon, Watkins and a team of friends were still putting touches on the minimally finished ground-floor space and unpacking art. (Watkins indicated he and his team might still be hanging some of the show when it opens today at 6, assuming the space gets its certificate of occupancy in time).
In the years since the Benton project, Watkins has been collecting posters, photographs and historical material from the sheriff campaign.
“My goal was to transform my collection into a museum collection that will go to museums, and to preserve it,” he said. “I had a unique ability to find this stuff because of the Benton book.”
Most of the pieces in the show are not for sale. Watkins’ hope, he said, is to educate the Aspen community about its counterculture history with the free exhibition.
“There is a community aspect to this,” he said. “This is important to the town. Andy Hecht realized that. The city (Building Department) people realized that. What I’m going to do is bring together old people, young people, tourists, everybody. People will see a side of Aspen that is virtually obsolete.”
His plan is for “Freak Power” to open in Aspen and eventually travel nationally and internationally.
The Hechts, Watkins said, have rented him the space through Oct. 15 as they seek a long-term tenant. In the coming months, he also plans to host exhibitions of work by Ralph Steadman and local artists.
In the Gonzo Gallery’s previous life, it was open from February 2012 to April 2013. During that stretch, Watkins organized shows of work by Benton, shotgun art by Thompson and beat generation icon William S. Burroughs, and showcased works by talented young local artists such as Stanley Bell and Tony Prikryl.
The space hosted well-attended openings and parties with crowds that skewed young and engaged a diverse local crowd you don’t often see at openings elsewhere downtown.
Watkins was granted access to that space by the Hechts in the waning days before Benton’s old studio building was redeveloped — seen at the time as a savvy public relations move by the Hechts, whose plan to demolish Benton’s studio drew protest from locals who wanted it preserved. (The Aspen City Council eventually approved a Hecht plan to preserve the Benton building and the neighboring Little Annie’s Eating House as part of a development putting a three-story mixed-use building on the adjacent, previously vacant, lot).
The irony of Aspen developers, who have bought and built up much of the downtown core, giving away their newest building for an art show honoring a political campaign that sought to shut down development and referred to the Hechts’ ilk as “greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals,” is not lost on Watkins.
“It is ironic, but the fact is that I couldn’t have done this without them, and it’s very cool that they value it,” he said.
Because of sky-high downtown commercial rents, Watkins nearly resigned himself to opening “Freak Power” somewhere other than Aspen.
“I had the unfortunate realization that this was only going to happen in Denver or Chicago,” he said. “There’s no place in Aspen where you can put on a show like this because the rent is too expensive.”
But last month, he said, he ran into Andy Hecht at a laundromat, pitched him on bringing back the Gonzo in the new building, and Hecht supported the idea.
Call it Freak Power in Hechtville.
Since the Gonzo Gallery closed two years ago, Watkins has been at work on a book about Thompson’s 1970 campaign. Retired Sheriff Bob Braudis assisted him in putting it together, and wrote a foreword and afterword for the volume, which will be published in August.
Watkins is planning to host a book launch and series of talks on Aspen’s counterculture history in the new gallery later this summer.
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