The 16th Street Mall Alleys Have Changed, Here’s What to Check Out

As Denver grows, previously underutilized areas are given more attention for various reasons — whether it be safety, beautification or simply a better use of space. It’s that kind of reassessment that provided the groundwork for LoDo’s new Dairy Block pedestrian alley, the cobblestone walkway in the main CRUSH alley in RiNo and most recently, the transformation of five alleys on 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square with site-specific installations. Dubbed Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project, these installations are one of the last efforts on the part of Happy City to positively disrupt normal routines through art.

Both the Downtown Denver Partnership and Downtown Denver Business Improvement District helped bring these alley transformations to fruition, and Cortney Stell with Black Cube Nomadic Museum curated the project. The four local artists involved are Carlos Frésquez, Kelly Monico, Frankie Toan and Joel Swanson. Stuart Semple — a UK-based artist and the mastermind behind Happy City — was set to have an installation as well, but complications have prevented its completion thus far (more on that later).

Though these are part of Happy City, which ends at the end of this month, they will remain in their respective alleys until May 2019. Each installation includes a short description on the alley wall with the artist’s name, but we’ve created our own descriptions, listed below and including the location.

Kelly Monico

: Between 15th and 14th Streets and Larimer and Market 

The Lowdown: Kelly Monico is a local artist and professor who typically works in film and performance pieces, and for her contribution to the project, she created a piece that uses sound and statues to immerse anyone who walks through the alley in a different dimension. Though her installation is at first subtle — you may even walk by looking down at your phone and not notice a single thing — once you do notice, it’s impossible to look away.Especially if you’re fond of cats. Alley Cats, as her work is titled, consists of 300 replicas of felines — perched, stretching, mouths open, sleeping — that stretch from 15th to 14th Streets.

The intention behind this site-specific piece is to provide “‘playful commentary on humans’ fascination with felines throughout history” — including the current age of cat-related gifs, memes and videos on the internet, as Black Cube explained it. The auditory aspect of Alley Cats is, of course, cat sounds that play through speakers once you reach the middle of the block. So depending on whether you’re a cat person or not, you might find yourself delightfully at home or terribly uncomfortable as you walk through this clever alley transformation.

Joel Swanson

 Between Curtis and Champa Streets on the southwest side of 16th Street Mall

The Lowdown: Who actually owns the public spaces of a city? Are alleys a gray area? These are some of the questions that come from Joel Swanson’s installation, titled Y/OURS. Swanson is a digital artist who displayed a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver in 2014 and teaches at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. For his contribution, Swanson created a neon sign, fastened between the buildings that flashes between the words “yours” and “ours” — inviting the viewer to contemplate the small difference in verbiage and the large difference in meaning. In some ways, the choice of words here signifies an embracing tone — what is ours is yours — but in another way, the choice of words can take on a questioning tone as well — why is it only you, and not us, too? 

Carlos Frésquez

Between Stout and California Streets on the southwest side of 16th Street Mall

The Lowdown: Carlos Frésquez, a celebrated Chicano artist based in Denver, created an installation called Alley Freshener that is both humorous and steeped in meaning. The enlarged air fresheners are shaped like evergreen trees and read “Spruced Up” as the scent — perhaps a nod to Colorado’s state tree, the Blue Spruce. By suspending the alley-sized air fresheners above a row of dumpsters, not only does the installation immediately incite smiles or smirks, it also almost appears reasonable. The shape and colors are so recognizable to most of us, and the reality that most alleys do, in fact, smell like trash, leads our minds to acceptance before skepticism.

But then, after the initial laugh dies down, the deeper meaning sets in, where Frésquez calls attention to the need to revitalize shared urban spacesAlley Freshener also explores our notions of keeping private spaces, like our cars, cleaner than publicly shared spaces, like alleys and parks.

Frankie Toan

Between Stout and California Streets on the southwest side of 16th Street Mall

The Lowdown: Frankie Toan’s installation is called Public Bodies and represents how important interacting with public spaces is, to an individual and to a society as a whole. Toan is a past resident artist of RedLine, PlatteForum and Arrowmont School of Arts in Tennessee who currently lives and works in Denver and is constantly experimenting with different mediums for creating art.

Public Bodies uses a collection of vibrantly-colored shapes interspersed with painted dialogue bubbles and mouths to encourage people to rethink the use of the alley as a social place. The collection is suggestive of a group of people, animatedly chatting with each other or passing dishes across a table. Through the use of familiar and human attributes, like an eye, a mouth and a hand (with opposable thumbs), Toan teases onlookers into the neglected space on an instinctual level. Stop by and stare at them for a while and we bet you’ll strike up a conversation with another passer-by — which is exactly what Toan wanted.

Stuart Semple

 Between Stout and Champa Streets on the northeast side of 16th Street Mall 

The Lowdown: Unfortunately, Stuart Semple’s installation, called I should be crying but I just can’t let it show has faced some technical difficulties during the installation process. Although the other four alleys opened on June 15, at the time of writing this article, Semple’s is still grounded. What we do know about this piece is that it will be a smiley face — the universal symbol of happiness. By placing it at the entrance of an alley, Semple hopes the iconic symbol will encourage optimism.


All photography by Cori Anderson

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