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Presto, It's a Painting! That's an 'Art Attack'

April 21, 1996|L.M. COLLINS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DENVER — Audiences gasp in amazement as Denny Dent, with three brushes in each fist, screams and dances and twirls and jumps while painting a mural-size canvas in the time it takes two songs to play.

Dent has just had an "art attack."

The hybrid art form, combining painting, music and choreography, leaves crowds cheering, crying and stunned as portraits seem to appear out of thin air.

The Guinness Book of Records wanted to catalog Dent as the world's fastest painter. But Dent says that would be missing the point.

"The paint is secondary," Dent says. "It is the message that's important. The near-miracle of my painting is only the vehicle that allows me the opportunity to share my message with an audience. But if it weren't for the painting, I don't know if they'd listen."

Gerald Ford once asked Dent, while backstage at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas waiting to go on, why he painted so fast.

"I'm out to disturb the heart of a nation. I've got no time to lose," Dent replied as he prepared to paint a huge portrait of the former president in eight minutes to the rhythms of patriotic music.

The show lasts from one to two hours, starting off slowly and building to a verbal and musical climax. Dent usually does more than one portrait during his performance.

And Dent has quite an audience to speak to. He has performed for President Clinton at his inaugural ball, Pope John Paul II, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Jerry Garcia, Julio Iglesias, Frank Sinatra, Jim Belushi and Jim Carrey.

Most of his works are bright, almost fluorescent, portraits of American icons such as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, John Coltrane and others, immortalized on a black or blue background in thick, stark, agitated brush strokes in abstract Expressionist style. The result usually is surprisingly realistic, despite the short time Dent allots himself.

His canvases sell for anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000, and his paper paintings for $2,000 or more. He charges $15,000 to $20,000 for his performances--lasting 1 hour and 10 minutes.

He performs "art attack" at about 10 arts festivals, four corporate events and 150 shows a year choreographed to rock, country and western, jazz and classical music. His venues include the Cherry Arts Festival in Denver, the House of Blues in New Orleans and places in Germany, Japan and Chile.

In February, he painted Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy at Denver's McNichols Sports Arena in honor of the athlete's 300th career victory.

At the Cherry Creek festival, which draws 300,000 people over three days, Dent's performances bring in nearly 50,000 fans, 4,000 for each of 12 shows, says Bill Charney, the festival's president.

"He's quite an attraction. His show is a great metaphor for the arts festival itself, for the message of his performance is that art is for everybody, and everybody is an artist [and] we can all relate to art regardless of our backgrounds and education," Charney says.

Charney says the festival had to set up a special place for Dent to perform, because people would stop to gawk, causing gridlock.

"He is one of the most high-energy performers you'll ever see," says Matthew Kryjak, a Denver hotel manager who has followed Dent to four arts festivals and bought one of his paintings. "He loves a crowd, and when he's finished, they love him."

The irony of the title "art attack" is that, according to many who have watched his performance, he seems in danger of a heart attack.

Kryjak, who saw Dent backstage after a performance, says Dent keeps an oxygen tank close at hand so he can grab it as soon as his performance ends.

Dent, 47, lives in Denver and works in a chartreuse studio decorated with bright canvas paintings, portraits, airbrush lithographs and tissue-and-foil collages. He is trying to develop studio works for commercial purposes, blending airbrush and collage techniques for galleries and living rooms.

Dent has worked with both hands since he was a child. He comes from a family of artists. He grew up in the Oakland area with his mother, a portrait painter; his grandmother; and his aunt and uncle, who were constantly involved in artistic ventures, Dent says.

"All I remember is my mother painting me before I could speak. Art was around me my whole life, and I was always encouraged," he says.

He quit school in ninth grade, and his first art attack occurred in Las Vegas in 1981, when he was trading his paintings for alcohol in a bar where he said he practically lived.

Local radio stations were promoting a vigil to mark the first anniversary of John Lennon's death. Dent, who was painting a portrait of the Beatles star to music, pleaded with the station to allow him to perform.

He auditioned, got clearance for his first performance and was promoted as "Denny Dent and the 2-Fisted Art Attack."

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