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The distinction between sculpture and installation is a blurry one--and that makes sense, given that the two mediums are both essentially concerned with artfully occupying space. Many local contemporary sculptors and installation artists test the boundary between the two art forms. But no one knows the territory better than well-known and highly regarded artist Lawrence Argent, an art professor at the University of Denver. So it's perfect that Argent is prominently featured in two local group shows that attempt to explore the place where sculpture meets installation: Insight on Site, at the Arvada Center, and Materials Witness, at the Emmanuel Gallery.

Surely there is no place on earth--at least no place around here--where a viewer would be less likely to expect a credible exhibit on the art of installation than at the Arvada Center. That's because the center permanently displays two of the worst-ever examples of the medium: the Clarice Dreyer eyesore "Skyline"--all those aluminum twigs climbing the outdoor theater's stage house--and Vito Acconci's willful misconduct "Dirt Wall," which is as ugly as it is useless. Of course, ugliness and uselessness are qualities not entirely inconsistent with the Arvada Center itself, which was once beautiful but since a series of insensitive and marginally functional additions in 1992 has been one of the worst site gags on the Front Range.

Even with these many strikes against her, head curator Kathy Andrews has come through--as she has time and again. Insight On Site might not be good enough to erase from our memories the vandalism of Dreyer or Acconci. But it comes close.

Occupying the large, if cavern-like, lower galleries, Insight on Site presents six installations. Argent's "Voyage," the first piece that visitors come upon in the show, sets a high standard by which the remaining five invariably must be judged. All but one of them make the grade.

For "Voyage," which fully occupies the ample side gallery just off the main entrance, Argent has lined the walls with cream-colored feathers held together with nearly invisible clear plastic tape. The feathers have been spread in drifts on the floor against the gallery's beige carpeting, creating a pretty good facsimile of water. Around the room, old suitcases pierced by cast oars have been suspended from the ceiling with thin wires. In the center, an elaborate rowing machine grinds away, moving the tips of the oars in small circles. The slow movements of the oars, interestingly, don't move the feathers on the floor; that job has been left to viewers' shoes, which carry them through the other installations.

"Voyage" seems rife with narrative content. For instance, the movement of the oars and the flying suitcases appear to refer to Argent's own life. The Australian-born artist has done plenty of traveling himself, arriving in Denver a few years ago after stints on both the East and West coasts.

But Argent isn't just an expert at drawing people into galleries; he's also one of the most intelligent artists around, a point underscored by his presentation of these works. In lieu of the hokey and pretentious statements on panels that "explain" the other pieces in this show, Argent simply lists his materials and gives credit to his collaborators, allowing viewers to experience "Voyage" as an entirely visual event. How refreshing. Across from Argent's "Voyage" is "Shift," by Sherry Wiggins. The work is much better than Wiggins's two Denver International Airport commissions, "Pivot Emblem" and "Fenceline Artifact" (both done in collaboration with Buster Simpson). But it shares with them an interest in using the natural world as a device to alter visual perspective.

In "Shift," a room made of unfinished lumber and unbleached muslin features a narrow entrance that leads in turn to a wide curved wall onto which color slides of natural scenes are projected. Black rectangles hang from the ceiling, and when the visitor gets to the back wall and is forced to turn around, it becomes evident that the backs of the rectangles have been hung with mirrors. The effect is interesting, but it's the Japanese-teahouse appearance of the lumber-and-muslin construction of the exterior that provides "Shift's" real strength. The subtlety of the muslin also provides the perfect backdrop to Blaine De St. Croix's adjacent "Rare Pages VI," essentially a set of wall-hung bookcases with three library ladders on tracks.

Beyond the central atrium, where "Rare Pages VI" has been installed, are tour-de-force efforts in the two back galleries. In the gallery that opens onto the atrium, it's the gorgeous "Concealing Tolerances," by Andrew Connelly, and in the side gallery, Christopher Nitsche's breath-taking "Metaphyesthai."

"Concealing Tolerances" is simultaneously dense and minimal, unified by a large white tarp that defines it. Connelly has brought together custom elements like a black staircase with ready-mades such as the grids of buckets. He also throws in found objects--a refrigerator on a sculpture stand and a motorcycle hung upside-down from an iron frame. Connelly even incorporates video: Visitors are recorded via a hidden camera behind a curtain, which is surmounted by a Soviet rifle in a Perspex case. This thing is great; just don't read the artist's statement, which falls into the I'm-too-old-for-it stream of consciousness school.

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