HEAD TRIP

The much-talked-about head of the University of Denver's sculpture department, Lawrence Argent, is paired with Arizona-based ceramic artist Dorothy Rissman in the current exhibit The Figure Re-examined at the Mackey Gallery. What we have here are essentially two single-artist shows, the unifying theme of which becomes evident only upon careful viewing and reflection.

Argent, known for his installations, is represented instead by drawings, paintings and wall-hung sculptural reliefs. In the paintings and the reliefs, he employs materials that look to be the latest thing but are actually quite ancient: encaustic, lead and gold leaf. Apparently, Argent's been using them for a while; these pieces are up to five years old.

The two elegant paintings in the show adhere to the same format: A square, predominantly white panel is joined horizontally to a square panel that's been gold-leafed. The white panel has a dull shine from the tinted beeswax used as the encaustic, while the gold panel gleams brightly from the traditionally applied metal leaf. Transparent, untinted beeswax reveals collage elements on the white side, which stand in contrast to raised areas called pastiglia on the gold.

These paintings are in many ways an outgrowth of Argent's older wall-hung reliefs, also on view. The reliefs feature black encaustic fields laid on thick boards; the boards have been pierced and mounted with steel, lead, copper and felt. References to shelter and to the human body abound: Check out the hinged doors in the remarkable "#101" or the caged room in the chilling "#102." Though Argent's work would readily fall into the conceptual camp, he says his finished pieces aren't the realization of a specific idea but simply the "product of the process." And, it might be added, a product of the nature of the materials themselves.

This explains why the cast-resin pieces, mounted on the wall with heavy steel brackets, bear so little resemblance to the encaustic paintings and reliefs. The wonderful blocks of resin, which Argent says "look like big pieces of candy," encapsulate objects and reflect the artist's interest in the frozen moment. In "untitled," two wire high-heeled shoes are suspended, each in its own block. In "Struck in the Middle," an egg seems to be falling in front of the head of a pitchfork.

Argent doesn't name his pieces very often--most of the ones in this show are either numbered or untitled--because he says the absence of a title opens up different avenues of interpretation. "I'm always trying to discover the things I don't know," he explains, and a sense for the enigmatic is key to his work.

Equally enigmatic are Rissman's ceramic heads and figures, which fill the two back spaces of Mackey to overflowing. The larger room is crowded with a forest of crude heads that recall primitive art. These are altered, slab-built vessels with closed tops. Rissman has literally torn and punctured wet clay to create suggestions of eyes, ears and mouths. Noses are no more than pinched mounds of clay.

The dark mood of these pieces--the punctures create deep shadows--is magnified by the dull, roughly finished surfaces Rissman employs. They're principally earth-toned with shades of brown and gray, but there are also hints of red or yellow and a lot of black.

Argent also includes several fetishlike figures. In "Recycled," a small statue with a grotesque head, the body has been impaled by a stick and seems to be crumbling. In "Bound," the body appears to be wrapped like a mummy, while in "Fettered," it's enveloped in wire. These pieces are reminiscent of voodoo dolls, as well as African-American folk and outsider art.

It's hard to find a connection between the work of Argent and Rissman, since they present such idiosyncratic visions. But there is a bond nonetheless, and it's more than just the somber air each lends to Mackey: Both artists use the container as a metaphor for the human figure and as a way to express the human spirit.

 
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