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Local photographer Billy Henry is standing in front of his installation and saying something about juxtaposition when a deafening whoosh thunders behind him. Its source is a semi-truck rolling through Denver’s latest street art exhibition, Duct-Work 2, and it’s a reminder that, oh yeah, this art show is directly under an I-70 viaduct. But if Henry’s surprised at the interruption, he hides it well as he continues speaking. He doesn’t see Duct-Work 2‘s location as a poor home for art; quite the opposite, he says.
“There’s a lot of paradox and contradiction in having an art gallery here in what’s historically been a mostly industrial part of town,” Henry says. “That’s what I love about it. I think it’s a great idea.”
Duct-Work 2 is the second iteration of Duct-Work, which debuted in 2016 and featured artwork from 20 local artists. The gallery was initially thought up by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), which teamed up with the Denver Urban Arts Fund (DUAF) and the Denver Arts and Skills Center (DASC) to make it a reality. At the core of the Duct-Work projects, says CDOT’s Rebecca White, is the concept of using art to “return a place to its community.” But with the viaduct scheduled to be destroyed during CDOT’s I-70 expansion (which starts next year), the community art project is sure to be short-lived.
Take that as an incentive to see this gallery sooner rather than later. Since 1964, when CDOT engineers decided to construct I-70 straight through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, this large viaduct hasn’t been much more than an eyesore for local residents, says DUAF director Mary Valdez. In the years prior to Duct-Work‘s launch, Valdez says the aging structure became a hot spot for graffiti. Through Duct-Work 2, this viaduct becomes a place for Denver residents from all over to appreciate a memorable stretch of artistic expression.
Some of the artists’ works are easily recognizable, such as Patrick Kane McGregor’s bulldog or Mike Graves’ cartoonish illustrations. But you might miss Gamma Acosta’s work, which covers several of the viaduct’s pillars. The work of Sandi Calistro, a local tattoo artist and muralist, whose stunning mural resides at the west end of the gallery, and Henry’s massive wheat-pasted photograph (the photograph was pasted to the wall in strips) are new to this year’s exhibit and provide motorists with a brief-yet-impressive snapshot of Denver street art.
What’s remarkable about the art in this viaduct is that it’s successful, if only for brief moments between bursts of noisy traffic, in directing attention away from the sidewalk, the road, or the nearby Purina dog food factory. Although most drivers still speed through the area, a few slow down (in the middle of the road) to steal a few more seconds as their passengers press up against windows and take in the art.
Sure, not five feet away from the art there’s probably—OK, definitely—a faded t-shirt covered in dirt next to old fast food bags and an empty pack of cigarettes. But it’s a viaduct. What did you expect to see?
If you go: Duct-Work 2 is located on 46th Avenue underneath I-70, near the exit onto Brighton Boulevard.