Artist Michael Cleverly returns to Aspen with Gonzo Gallery exhibition |

Artist Michael Cleverly returns to Aspen with Gonzo Gallery exhibition


What: Michael Cleverly exhibition

Where: Gonzo Gallery

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 20

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The artist Michael Cleverly, long a fixture of Woody Creek and of the Aspen art scene, has returned to showcase what he’s been up to lately in a Gonzo Gallery exhibition.

The 16-piece show opened Friday night and runs through Sept. 20.

Its centerpieces are three massive and meticulously constructed totem poles. These mixed media assemblages — made for outdoor installation — are detailed, disturbing and interactive pieces that demand attention. As primal as they are playful in spirit, the totems are thick with sculpted wood skulls, scary clown faces, propellers and pieces that spin in the wind, animal skulls, bones and teeth, tools and welded steel sculpture.

The biggest and boldest of them is the 12-foot-tall “Quetzalcoatl,” Cleverly’s rendition of the Mesoamerican deity, which includes — from top to bottom — a gator emerging from the earth, a turtle swimming upward, a bird in flight and a nude serpent woman.

Gonzo Gallery director D.J. Watkins has repainted the gallery for the show, cleaned and restored the totems and is showing these works on white pedestals. Showing them in this white cube gallery environment, Watkins aims to elevate their primal mood and artistry of the totems.

“I’ve loved taking these outside of a yard and putting them in this gallery space,” Watkins said as he and his team installed the show Thursday night. “They look so great.”

Cleverly left his Woody Creek cabin and moved to Hotchkiss in 2014. He’d lived in the Aspen area since the early 1970s, working as an artist and carpenter while carving out a place as a singular local voice as an Aspen Times columnist and co-author — with Sheriff Bob Braudis — of “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson” in 2008.

For decades, Cleverly cut a unique profile in Woody Creek and Aspen — a transgressive artist and fiercely independent Woody Creeker.

The totems and carving work, Cleverly said Friday, evolved out of a sort of neighborly feud years ago with the billionaires of the Wyly family. They put up a sign dubbing their land “3 Mile Ranch,” supposedly because they’d bought three miles of Woody Creek. Cleverly thumbed his nose with artwork.

“I carved a big sign, naming my cabin ‘2¾ Ranch,’ then I carved some other thing to hang off of it,” he said. “And that’s how the carving started.”

The wood work grew increasingly elaborate, building up to the totems transformed from logs.

In quarantine in Hotchkiss, Cleverly said he has been carving ornate wood swords.

“I’m getting old enough that carrying these huge logs for the totems is not fun,” Cleverly, 73, explained. “The swords are my geriatric exercise.”

Surrounding the totems in the Gonzo show is a selective survey of Cleverly’s recent work, pulled mostly from Watkins’ personal collection. It includes pieces from Cleverly’s series of sexually charged and violent paintings based on old adventure magazines and various sculptures (among them a carved shillelagh embedded with human teeth). The newest pieces, made over the past two years, are a series of nude acrylic portraits in his “Darcie” series.

Among the smaller Cleverly assemblages on view is “Nightlight,” possibly the creepiest thing you’ll ever see in an art gallery. It features a broken doll’s head that glows in demonic red, stuck on top of an antique lamp.

The show includes a Cleverly portrait of Hunter S. Thompson, his Woody Creek neighbor and friend, as well as a bricolage titled “Hunter’s Ire,” which also draws on the Woody Creek legend and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author. It is a skull wrapped in odd, rusted bits of metal scrap, which Cleverly collected from Thompson’s Owl Farm kitchen when Cleverly remodeled it.

Cleverly has come back to Aspen for a handful of exhibitions since leaving six years ago, including a previous Gonzo Gallery exhibition and a landscape show at the Woody Creek Community Center. He visits frequently to see old friends.

“I don’t stay ways so long that the latest changes freak me out,” he said. “I get back fairly often.”

The Gonzo Gallery, operating as a pop-up in a space a few doors down from the Aspen Art Museum, was expected to close a summer’s end. But Watkins said he has extended the short-term lease on the Hyman Avenue space, and will keep it open through the end of April. He has plans for shows of work by Aspen-based artist and activist Tom Benton along with illustrator and Hunter Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Watkins is hopeful he will be able to install outdoor heaters to continue the social — and socially distanced — scene that has taken root on the sidewalk and street outside of the gallery this summer. And he hopes to continue tapping into the weirder and wilder side of Aspen art for more shows like Cleverly’s. Eyeing a titillating erotic painting in the show, Watkins laughed and said: “I’ve been joking that I’m so desperate I’ve resorted to selling smut.”