Hammers and Saws

The building at the corner of 17th and Wazee Streets, where Metropolitan State College's Center for the Visual Arts occupies most of the ground floor, is currently shrouded in a jungle of metal pipes. But the oddly artistic maze isn't part of the center's fabulous Contemporary Metals USA exhibit. Instead, it's that ubiquitous feature of LoDo, the construction scaffold. "That went up three days before the opening," says gallery director Sally Perisho with a sigh. "I've been telling people Christo's coming to wrap the building."

The scaffolding blocks the large display windows that usually allow passersby to glimpse the shows within. And that's too bad, because this current effort is one of the most intelligently conceived exhibits being presented in the area.

The large group show features full-sized sculptures by artists from around the country. It's the kind of thing Denverites rarely see, and Perisho says she understands why. "I should have called it 'Heavy Metal'--everything is so heavy and costly to ship," she says. "Some of the pieces cost more than $500 just to get here, and it will cost the same amount to ship them back."

Luckily for Perisho, someone else was picking up the tab this time around. Corporate sponsors typically recede into the background of art shows, but not so Timet Titanium Metals Corporation, which is using Contemporary Metals USA as an advertisement of sorts for its interlocking titanium roof plates. A quartet of these plates, complete with Timet's logo, leads off the show. What makes this more interesting than crass is the fact that these glimmering metal squares were used to cloak the new but already world-famous Guggenheim Museum by architect Frank Gehry, just now getting its finishing touches in Bilbao, Spain. The roof plates have been paired with a photo mural of the museum that fills an entire wall at the Metro center.

The long-awaited opening of the Guggenheim brings to mind the continuing struggles of Denver's own budding Museum of Contemporary Art. That group has been locked in negotiations for the former Vulcan Iron Works building on West Colfax Avenue for what seems like years. Given the problems that have held up the purchase of the fairly ordinary turn-of-the-century brick building--essentially, who will pay to clean up the pollution left as a legacy of iron smelting--why doesn't MoCA build its own building from the ground up? As with the Guggenheim, a dramatic new design by a recognized talent could make the place a worldwide sensation before the doors even open. There could even be a competition, as there was for the Denver Public Library on the Civic Center. And it's not as if MoCA doesn't have the big-bucks connections to pull off such a coup. So, MoCA board, how about it?

In the meantime, visitors to Contemporary Metals can enjoy the Guggenheim from afar, along with the various sculptures that fill out the rest of the show. The sculptors selected by Perisho have taken metal sheets and sawed them, hammered them, cut them, bent them and joined them together in a variety of ways. This so-called direct metal sculpture is an outgrowth of metalsmithing, a method historically used for creating utilitarian items such as teapots and military armor. And though Perisho has chosen only artists who make non-functional objects, the vessel-making tradition of the metalsmiths comes through thanks to several artists who use the bowl form as their starting point.

Notable in this regard is Tom Joyce, a world-renowned metals artist living in Santa Fe. According to Perisho, "about three-quarters of the artists in the show have been directly influenced by Joyce," and it's easy to see why. Joyce is represented by four pieces, including a pair of decorative vessels made of forged iron. "Fibonacci Bowl" is a low, flat form made of two shallow dishes that seem to float. The naturalistic and vaguely organic shapes are highlighted by a natural metal finish, and the marks of Joyce's forging tools can be seen in the scabrous pattern of the surfaces. "Rectangular Pieced Plate Bowl" is more conventional but just as impressive. Essentially a centerpiece--though the table on which it's placed had better be a hefty one--it features a wide collar with a perfectly hemispherical bowl in the center.

Others who've gone bowling in Contemporary Metals include J. Agnes Chwae of Madison, Wisconsin, and Brigid O'Hanrahan of Philadelphia. Chwae is represented by a handful of hammered metal vessels finished in lovely earth-toned patinas; O'Hanrahan, who uses highly polished aluminum, has created three small bowls, two of which include random letters as decorative motifs. These bowls, which are utilitarian only in theory, straddle the border between fine art and craft. None but Richie Rich would think of using the works of Joyce, Chwae or O'Hanrahan--which cost thousands of dollars each--to eat his cereal.

Other artists in the show refer to metalsmithing's functional roots while making objects that aren't useful at all--though they are nice to look at. Such is the case with Stephen Yusko of Makanda, Illinois, an emerging artist who does himself proud with efforts like "Oil Can," a container with a rich gunmetal finish and a long arching spout. Even less functional are the lidded bottles by another Illinois artist, Rich Smith of Carbondale. At first glance, Smith's mild-steel sculpture "Pylon Container" looks like it's made of fired ceramic. The heavily worked surfaces include incised lines and bumpy scallops that Smith has finished with a controlled rust. "Pylon Container" is magnificent.

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