SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

Like a finely crafted poem, installation art must carefully balance its elements. In order to successfully fill an entire room (or at least a large space) with a single, multifaceted artwork, every object and idea within that space must contribute to the overall strength--and meaning--of the piece.

Too many artists muddy the communication between installation and viewer by including objects that may in themselves be beautiful or interesting but don't contribute to the installation's message. Artists who work primarily with found objects seem especially prone to filling the installation space with gewgaws, leading at worst to art that looks like the discards from a good spring cleaning. The thread of meaning is lost among all the objects clamoring for attention.

This problem lurks in the corners of A Collaboration, the installation currently occupying Artforms Gallery, the cozy space Robischon Gallery recently added to its larger showroom to house small, experimental shows. Artforms is an ideal arena for installation art; its high ceilings challenge the imagination, and no other artspace showing installation art boasts such a vast and enviable street window. What's more, the sacrifice of space for an installation (which can't be sold and often can't be relocated without destroying the integrity of the work) is a generous and risky move on the part of Robischon, which could easily fill the room with more commercially viable projects. Unfortunately, A Collaboration, while it tries bravely to soar through the rafters, doesn't make it out of the attic.

Artists Katherine Temple and Richard Colvin, whose delightful sound-and-found-object installation at Foothills in April was so succinct and unified, here lose their way amid antique furniture and knickknacks meant to signify...well, something that never emerges. The two collaborators transform Artforms into a kind of faux salon, with old chairs, some obscured by veils descending from the ceiling, some sheltered by opened umbrellas suspended from above. On one wall a window frame, one half of it filled with thorns instead of glass, leads nowhere, "warmed" from below by a fake ceramic fire log. A row of disembodied hands along two walls gives the piece an arty feel, but the device has been used so often that it seems hackneyed.

The artists' statement, which speaks vaguely of "interpretations" generated by the juxtaposing of objects, gives no clue as to why these particular chairs, veils and accessories are important and need to be together in this setting (the title is equally mum). While artfully placing two objects together can sometimes ignite a spark that fires an emotional response or insight, here the spark is as artificial as the flame in the fake fireplace. The feeling that something intriguing or odd or even interesting might be going on in this phony living room simply doesn't gel, despite the Magritte-ish umbrellas. And the gallery's location, so close to antique stores and furniture showrooms, further confuses the presentation: Is it art or an overimaginative window display?

In contrast, there is nothing haphazard about Jeff Carter's Snapshot, at Artyard--although you might at first think so. The spare elements of this well-crafted and poetic installation are so meticulously constructed that surprises and meanings fairly burst from the bare walls. Funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Carter--who completed his bachelor of fine arts degree just last year at the University of Colorado-Boulder--structures this debut piece about his deceased uncle, a street transient and former water-skier.

Upon walking into the installation, I was startled to find part of the wallboard torn away, as if workmen were interrupted while trying to fix the plumbing. Closer examination revealed that the wall is precisely torn in the form of a motorboat; I realized I'd been fooled, and that the deliberately unfinished wall is the "canvas" for a wraparound work of art depicting the way that death leaves everything undone.

Trailing behind the sketchy motorboat, the thin ribbon of a water-skiing towline is exquisitely hand-cut out of wallboard superimposed over the gallery's walls. The towline wraps around the gallery, artfully spelling out a message about Carter's uncle Vern. Each group of words in the brief message can be read and interpreted separately, but the complete text, a stereotypical reaction to street people (e.g., don't give them money), seems especially poignant in light of Uncle Vern's death, symbolized finally by the abandoned handle at the end of the towline.

There is more to this extraordinary work--a handmade glass camera viewing the entire scene from above, water flowing through plumbing pipe (installed just for this piece), toy trains hiding behind the cut-out towline, seemingly accidental paint spills and exposed insulation. But all of these disparate elements are neatly--if jarringly--woven into a lean, compelling whole. Even the found objects are discreetly incorporated, indispensable and telling in their implied histories. Though raw and bare, Snapshot combines nostalgia, humor and technical skill to achieve great power.

A Collaboration, by Katherine Temple and Richard Colvin, through June 18 at Artforms Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788. Snapshot, by Jeff Carter, through July 7 at Artyard, 1251 South Pearl Street, 777-3219.

 
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