COLD COMFORT

The dead of winter is the last time one would expect to find an art show with most of the work exhibited outdoors. Surely only a lunatic--or, at the very least, an oddball--would schedule such an event in the coldest and darkest time of the year.

However, that's exactly what Chuck Parson has done with The Fragility of Permanence, his sublime solo show currently running at the Artyard Gallery--and he's neither a madman nor a weirdo. Instead, Parson is one of the region's modern masters, an artist on par not only with the small circle of other fine sculptors active in the area but with the best contemporary artists working hereabouts in any field of artistic endeavor. He has made a reputation for himself through the creation of sculptures as well as theatrical sets and installations. Occasionally, he even participates in the enactment of a performance piece.

Parson's wide range of artistic pursuits suggests both his boldness and his facility. And it's these attributes that qualify him as one of the very few locals who could successfully pull off a winter sculpture garden. In fact, Fragility of Permanence isn't Parson's first cold-weather fling. In December 1986, some may recall, he created a monumental, five-ton "Ice Floe" for a three-day event on the lawn of the Denver Art Museum.

Parson didn't use ice this time around, instead creating his new pieces mostly from steel, stone and concrete. But he says he's still hoping for plenty of snow during the show's run. "It would make the background recede, and all you would see is the sculptures," Parson notes. Sure enough, the snow that's fallen so far has created an effect not unlike the anonymous white walls of an indoor gallery.

The still, frigid air and the unique quality of winter light are also seen by Parson as essential elements of his sculptures. Additionally, the winter provides Parson with the subtle palette he employs. For these closely interrelated sculptures, Parson has predominantly used various shades of white, with details picked out in black, silver and gray. The white extends from a cold, eye-dazzling hue to a warm, creamy shade. Though the idea of site and time specificity in art has been widely embraced in the last twenty years, especially by contemporary sculptors and installation artists such as Parson, it's hard to imagine that these sculptures wouldn't look just as good on a hot summer's day.

The artist took the title for the Artyard exhibit from one of his mostly recently conceived sculpture series. And the pieces from that "Fragility of Permanence" series--some of which date back to 1994--are pure Parson. The artist takes his typical approach, utilizing ready-made industrial hardware as well as custom-cut angle irons and metal pipe. These materials are then assembled into either totemic or architectonic compositions. A common feature of Parson's work, seen here in spades, is the way the artist stresses the connections between various structural elements--for example, the screws or, more often, bolts that hold the sculptures together. And like all of Parson's sculptures, those in the "Fragility of Permanence" series are most often symmetrical in their formal arrangement.

One thing does set these works clearly apart from Parson's previous efforts: the incorporation of slabs of salvaged marble, some of which came from the old front steps of the Denver Museum of Natural History, where Parson worked in the installation department until a few weeks ago (his new day job is head of the sculpture department at Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design). The marble was long ago cut into planes, and in the intervening years was allowed to weather, resulting in stains on the surface and broken edges. Using it in the sculptures may seem like merely a subtle change in the artist's selection of materials. But consider for a moment how evocative of humanity the found marble is, with its smudgy, uneven surfaces and its swirling inner glow--especially when set against the industrial materials that have been Parson's signature.

That evocative quality has made marble the material of choice for traditional sculptors of the figure since the time of the ancients. But Parson credits the inspiration for his turn to marble to a spiritual experience he went through when he visited the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York a couple of years ago. There he saw a famed piece by Isamu Noguchi that "changed his life." The Japanese-American Noguchi, who died in 1988, left behind many sculptures, including a body of carved stone work that conveys the human form through simple organic shapes. Parson's translation of Noguchi's sculptural language finds the marble already "carved" through the original cutting and the subsequent erosion and breakage. But the link is there. With no literal imagery, Parson, like Noguchi before him, is able to convey a human presence.

The weathered stone also plays off the exhibit's title. Though it's the kind of material we regard as "permanent," time has altered it considerably. The concept is clear: The sculptures in the series are meant to represent people's lives--seemingly in a constant state of sameness, yet relentlessly, if very slowly, changing.

The scale of most of the pieces also evokes the human figure. Many of them stand erect in the asphalt-paved outdoor space at Artyard. In "Fragility of Permanence No. 11," Parson has piled geometric shapes like discs, cubes, cylinders and rectangles into a vertical spike. In the center, between two heavy brackets, flat sheets of white marble have been stood on end. Running from the top of the marble to the metal base is a system of eyelet bolts and heavy steel wire, which holds the marble in place. All this engineering and these cold materials are meant by Parson to convey the emotional connections and relationships that hold up the individual: It's all about support.

And even in those sculptures that don't seem to convey the human figure, such as the altar-like "Fragility of Permanence No. 2 1/2," Parson sticks to the same scale. The biggest and most elaborate pieces in the series are thus accessible, because Parson has maintained a strict and delicate relationship to the viewer.

The largest piece in the show, "Stance," isn't from the "Fragility of Permanence" series but shares with those pieces a white, black and gray color scheme, along with a steel, wire and concrete construction. "Stance"--the title of which refers to taking a political stand--is an open tower rising to the height of a two-story building. It's supported by six steel pillars at the base, then reduced to four at the top. Running from the top to the base is a non-contiguous concrete pole that has been roughly segmented with jagged edges. There are wide gaps between the segments--almost as though it's been pre-weathered. The contrast to the actual weathering seen on the marble of the "Fragility" series is apparent.

More structure than sculpture, "Stance" is an architectural folly. In the scope of the artist's vision, in its style, in its large size and in its intentions, "Stance" is public art in every sense--except that it was privately funded and has no permanent site. Which raises the question of why, if the City of Denver, various metro government agencies and the state have been spending millions on public art, an art-world household name like Parson has never received a public commission. Especially since his work--often in the form of monumental sculpture--is the kind of thing one expects of public art.

It's not that Parson hasn't tried. He's made numerous proposals, and his work would have been particularly appropriate at Denver International Airport. The interior detailing of the Fentress-and-Bradburn-designed tent roof definitely shows an affinity to Parson's work and may even have been partially inspired by it.

But the selection panel that reviewed Parson's DIA proposal wasn't interested. According to Artyard director Peggy Mangold, who helped Parson make the presentation, it was apparent by the panel's questions that most members were totally unfamiliar with Parson's work. Think about that for a minute. Parson's been at the top of his field and has exhibited in and around Denver for more than two decades. Yet the people entrusted to select public art somehow missed his work.

Parson has been bitterly disappointed by the lack of support he's received from the public sector. But he's made his peace with it. "Artists have the responsibility to poetically render their own time," he says. "The public-art process, at least around here, is purely democratic and reflects political realities, which totally prevents the artist from being able to do that." As a result, while Parson has in the past served on public-art panels and tried to change the system from within, he simply doesn't bother anymore.

The loss is ours. Luckily, though, Parson pledges that he "will continue to make public art even if it is without public funds. I will continue to contribute.

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