Spring Flurries: Highs & lows on the culture scene from winter 2018-19
It was the winter of unending powder days, the ski season that gave us something other than a hole at Base Village, the winter of the Ikon Pass, the winter of Bauhaus, Justice for New Year’s Eve, Lil Wayne for X Games. The 2018-19 season gave us the bittersweet final run of The Temporary at Willits, a 70th anniversary toast at Toklat Gallery and Hank Willis Thomas’ lift tickets.
It’s a dizzying run on the arts beat from Thanksgiving through Shortsfest. As Aspen catches its breath this offseason before Food & Wine and lanyard season and the Music Festival opens next month, here’s a run-down of the highs, the lows, the odds and the ends of Aspen’s winter 2018-19 in arts and culture.
The Aspen Art Museum’s “Lost Without Your Rhythm,” inspired by the Judson Dance Theater, kept us moving with a playful group exhibition that included a playground swing hanging from the ceiling and a climbable mountain. Along with the zombie-themed show that opened in December, it injected a heavy dose of fun and whimsy into the museum’s galleries.
The history of Aspen Highlands finally made it between two hard covers in ski instructor John Moore’s indispensable book “A History of Aspen Highlands,” which also asked pointedly “Where have all the characters gone?”
The Skye Gallery continued its phenomenal run of zeitgeist-y and can’t-miss exhibitions, bringing The Jealous Curator in to put together a five-woman show that opened Thanksgiving weekend and included biting and funny work by art stars like Ashley Longshore. The gallery followed with another hit: the furry, funny world of Spencer Hansen’s “Please Play” in January.
The blues-folk trio The Wood Brothers gets better with each of their annual returns to Belly Up, this time coming with free-wheeling songs from “One Drop of Truth,” which was nominated for a Grammy two days before the Woods headlined the local club.
The Wheeler/Stallard Museum in the West End was the center of the Aspen art world this winter as the world began celebrating the centennial of the Bauhaus art school and movement. Its tightly curated “bayer & bauhaus” show unearthed treasures from Herbert Bayer’s vastly influential decades in Aspen, from his original designs for the Sundeck to his 1940s Hotel Jerome stationary and sketches and studies for his iconic ski posters. (If you haven’t made it there yet, what are you waiting for? You must make it there! The show is up through next year.)
The superstar DJ Dillon Francis capped a creatively fertile and sometimes controversial 2018 with a big Belly Up show and family snowboard trip to Aspen that came amid an incredible run of high-grade electronic shows in the music club. With Francis, NGHTMRE, Cedric Gervais, Diplo, Justice, Emancipator, Above & Beyond and Steve Aoki all playing in a two-week span around the new year, Belly Up’s lineup rivaled any EDM club and any music festival on Earth.
We’ve heard a lot from climber Tommy Caldwell in the past few years, including a 5Point film talk, two 2018 documentaries and the memoir “The Push.” But his exhilarating and honest revealing conversation with Penn Newhard at Aspen Winter Words somehow broke new ground about Caldwell’s inner life as he transitions out of sensational mountaineering feats and into dad life.
Magician Mike Super roped the Aspen Times editor David Krause into his show at the Wheeler Opera House, correctly predicting one of our headlines.
The Aspen Art Museum’s extraordinary 24-artist group show “Zombies: Pay Attention!” managed to be popular and populist — and downright fun — without compromising its curatorial integrity. Works ranged from the Piotr Uklanski’s grisly massive blood-red abstract sculpture to Will Boone’s painting of a mangled face and Sue de Beer’s photo print “of a woman sliced in half from head to waist,” but the text works proved the most arresting: Rashid Johnson’s neon “Run” and Bruce Nauman’s “Pay Attention.”
Aspen Film, Anita Thompson and Bob Braudis toasted the 20th anniversary of the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” at the Wheeler, bringing the town together to celebrate Hunter S. Thompson’s darkly comic, politically incisive gonzo journalism masterpiece. And Braudis regaled the crowd with wild tales of going on the road with Johnny Depp and Thompson.
The Red Brick Center for the Arts added a solo exhibition space to its gallery, beginning with a photo show by Aspen artist Gary Gleason. It’s a small space but a huge opportunity for local artists to showcase their work. As the downtown galleries show fewer and fewer artists from Aspen’s stacked ranks, the Red Brick’s West Gallery is going to be an indispendible launchpad.
How many songs did Lil Wayne play in his fierce and frigid X Games show at Buttermilk? By my count, it was 28 (!) in little over an hour (!) as a rejuvenated Weezy — hot off the release of “Tha Carter V” — again made a case as the greatest rapper of all-time in the best performance X Games has hosted during its five year run of festival-style outdoor shows.
Please tell me the Crystal Palace Revue’s rapturously received return to the stage at the Wheeler Opera House means that the Palace players are back for good and that this will be at least an annual reunion.
If Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Colson Whitehead ever needs a side hustle, he ought to pick up some stand-up comedy gigs. He’s got the chops, as evidenced in Whitehead’s hilarious Winter Words talk — which also managed to weave in a dramatic reading of “The Underground Railroad” and incisive reflections on American history — where he gave the audience a laugh-a-minute experience with self-deprecating tales of his journey as a writer.
The Wheeler hosted a historic and intimate Leftover Salmon performance as the hugely influential Boulder-based jam band celebrated its 30th anniversary and reminisced about its early days barnstorming around Colorado’s ski towns.
“Free Solo” won the Oscar for Best Documentary. It’s easy to be cynical about awards ceremonies, but this is absolutely a watershed moment for adventure films and filmmakers on The Meeting-5Point-Mountainfilm circuit. If Hollywood is embracing dirtbag stories and outdoor movies, it means more opportunity for the mountain filmmakers we love, more money for directors who might be able to stop pimping sponsors on-screen, more of our stories being told and more movies like “Free Solo” in front of more eyeballs in more theaters around the world.
Jim Gaffigan sold out two Wheeler shows in February with new material — included an extended and somehow-fabulous bit on horses — as the theater and its Aspen Laugh Festival staked its claim as a tour stop for comedy’s best. The season also brought Melissa Villasenor, Tig Notaro, Kathleen Madigan, Jo Koy and Marc Maron to the Wheeler in a stand-up season that’ll be tough to top.
CORE and Anderson Ranch teamed for “Imagine Climate,” bringing local, regional and international artists together to tackle global warming including artist-of-the-moment Justin Brice Guariglia, whose road sign-styled work starkly warned “Climate Change at Work.”
The beloved Aspen-based author Bruce Berger — author of “The Complete Half-Aspenite” and the Aspen Music Festival history “Music in the Mountains” — finally got his due from the publishing industry in the Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover collection “A Desert Harvest.” And Aspen paid homage in a packed signing at Explore Booksellers.
The jamtronica giants STS9 filled Belly Up for three nights of wild shows and brought along its passionate fans from far and wide in one of the major musical events in ski country this winter. Always looking to break new ground, the band also staged an art show at the Skye Gallery, making Soundribe weekend a venue-hopping party that ran all weekend.
After fretting and freaking out on his “WTF” podcast about coming to Aspen for what he thought might be a disastrous set, Marc Maron killed at the Wheeler, battled a Donald Trump-supporting heckler, and a few days later on his podcast, recorded a memorable riff about the weird world of our Fat City.
New Yorker writer Jane Mayer came to town for her Winter Words talk just days after her monumental expose about President Trump and Fox News was published. But anybody in the sold-out crowd who came to hear her talk about how she landed 2019’s biggest story in journalism left disappointed, as moderator Carolyne Heldman punted on preparing for the interview and instead quoted from reviews of Mayer’s books and asked bafflingly confusing and vague questions. Mayer did her best with it, but this should have been a feather in Aspen Words’ cap rather than an embarrassment.
Shortly after Marvel tapped him to direct the surefire global sensation “Shang-Chi,” filmmaker Destin Cretton returned to Aspen Shortsfest in early April to reminisce about his early days in short film and a retrospective screening of his breakthrough “Short Term 12.”
In its final season, HBO’s “Veep” spoofed Aspen confabs like the Ideas Fest as only “Veep” can, setting an episode here where presidential candidates prostrate themselves for the endorsement of an eccentric rich guy. When Felix (said rich guy) announces from a T-Lazy 7-styled stage that, “We’re here in Aspen to build bridges to the future — bridges made of ideas,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ President Selina Meyer whispers “No wonder the rest of the world hates us.”
On Buttermilk’s closing weekend, the first — hopefully not last — staging of The Après festival took over the ski hill with three days of shows by two of the most popular jam bands in the world: Umphrey’s McGee and the String Cheese Incident. Fans from across Colorado and the U.S. made the pilgrimage — one told me it was his 140th Umprey’s show! — for the communal experience of skiing all day and dancing all night in deep and slushy snow.
As novelist Tayari Jones won the second annual Aspen Words Literary Prize in New York, she praised the awards existence and mission of recognizing fiction with social impact: “Thank you to Aspen Words for this award — for having this award at all. Because many of us who write and engage the issues of the day, we’re told not to.” Her impassioned speech indicated locals should look forward to her public talk here in June.
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