By Published: Sept. 24, 2021

Created by a CU Boulder prof, this Boulder-based art collective’s newest show, Uncanny Times, aims to address the discord that divides and alienates us from one another

For those who know University of Colorado Boulder’s art and art history professor George Rivera, it should come as no surprise that he joined the department in a controversial way. Rivera began his career at CU Boulder 50 years ago in the sociology department, focusing on Chicano studies. After issues of racism were raised by Rivera and others in the department, Rivera asked for a department transfer, which was granted in 1995. 

Rivera’s career in the art and art history department has been defined by this same drive to highlight injustices and social issues. As a sociologist, Rivera is concerned with racial and ethnic minorities. As an artist, he is always looking for what has not yet been done. The combination of these two concerns is what led him to create the Artnauts, an international art collective based Boulder that focuses on art as a form of activism, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a new exhibition, Uncanny Times, which opens in Boulder this Saturday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. 

At the top of the page: Flags from the Artnauts' 20th anniversary exhibition, "Rally 'Round the Flag of Justice: Globalocation" at Redline Denver ("Prayer Flags for Peace" artwork and photo courtesy of Trine Bumiller). Above: Video from Rivera's 2018 exhibition at South Korea's DMZ Museum roughly three miles south of the North Korean border.

When Artnauts was formed in 1996, practicing artists were mainly concerned with aesthetics. While Rivera never intended to compromise aesthetics, he also wanted to challenge this by creating a collective focused on connecting with oppressed people throughout the world. The name Artnauts is derived from the practice of art that is “not art as usual,” as well as the idea of the artist as an astronaut exploring uncharted territory. 

Since its inception, Artnauts has had more than 350 artists as members and participated in more than 270 exhibitions in areas of contention across five continents, including Colombia, Bosnia and the border between North and South Korea. Members Trine Bumiller, Beth Krensky and Martha Russo say that both their personal lives and their art have been altered by membership in the collective.

“I was already using some of these themes in my work (before joining Artnauts), but I was almost afraid to talk about them … commercial galleries don’t always want to hear about some of these harder themes,” Bumiller says. 

Artnauts has given Bumiller and the others permission to explore controversial themes and create something that comments on social and political issues, as opposed to focusing all their energies on creating work that sells.

By exhibiting art that focuses on a social issue that both the United States and the exhibiting country have in common, the artists in Artnauts create meaningful connections while allowing art to serve as a dialogue on the human condition. 

Reminiscing on the countries they have visited and the connections they have made, Krensky says Artnauts “builds bridges of understanding to create empathy.” 

Russo agrees, commenting that the international trips have taught her that “what every human being needs is to be listened to and cared for.” 

Prayer Flags for Peace exhibition

Flags from the Artnauts' 20th anniversary exhibition, "Rally 'Round the Flag of Justice: Globalocation" at Redline Denver ("Prayer Flags for Peace" artwork and photo courtesy of Trine Bumiller).

Interacting with the local population during these international exhibitions allows Artnauts members to obtain a deeper understanding of the social and political conditions that define the lives of the people in that country. 

For its 25th anniversary exhibition this year, Rivera and the Artnauts decided to exhibit in a country where they saw a major crisis of contention: the United States. With increasing tensions surrounding COVID and race relations, the exhibition titled Uncanny Times aims to address the discord that divides and alienates us. Artists were asked to explore this theme using whatever medium they wished.

While Uncanny Times marks an important quarter century milestone for the Artnauts, it also takes place in tandem with Rivera’s retirement from CU Boulder. When Rivera created Artnauts, he hoped it would make a lasting contribution to the art world. Over the years, Artnauts has received praise from major art historians and critics but, more importantly, they have created lasting connections with people across the globe. 

“I really feel that art history will recognize us … because we’re doing something very unique,” says Rivera. 

With Rivera’s impending retirement, he is hopeful the Department of Art and Art History will bring in more faculty who challenge today’s students to think beyond style. Rivera believes art students should be educated on how to create work that is relevant to current issues and not shy away from controversy.

Speaking with Bumiller, Krensky and Russo about their time in the collective shows their admiration for Rivera is unwavering.

Rivera is “fearless… in service to the cause of justice, peace and positive social change,” says Russo.

Uncanny Times is being exhibited in partnership with Metropolitan State University’s Center for Visual Art at Seidel City, an alternative art space located in Boulder. The opening reception takes place Saturday, Sept. 25 at 4 pm. For a listing of other events for Uncanny Times, visit the Artnauts website.