Sit on It

The title of the current exhibit at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, Chairs! Chairs! Chairs!, may suggest to some that what we're in for is a design show--or perhaps a display of artist-made furniture.

But it's neither.
Instead, CVA director Sally Perisho has assembled the work of some of Colorado's most accomplished artists who use chairs as imagery in their paintings and sculptures. "There are only three chairs you can sit on," she says. (Visitors are asked not to sit on them, however.) Though many of the artists have used chairs or allusions to chairs in previous works, others created pieces specifically for this show.

Chairs! has been an unabashed success, attracting the largest crowd in the CVA's history. "There were more people at the opening than at the Picasso show last summer," Perisho notes. Throngs have been walking through the door ever since.

Perisho came up with the idea when she noticed that many contemporary artists refer to chairs in their work. "The show demonstrates what it is that an artist can do well," she says. "They take us places we've never been, which displays the tremendous creativity of artists and their gifts." Perisho made an effort to include a wide range of material. "There are some pieces that are very accessible," she says. "It's an opportunity to see conventionally beautiful pieces, but there are also more difficult things, with some of the chairs being so abstracted that they're barely visible."

One of the first things to catch the eye is "Uneasy Chair," by George Peters, an artist who is mostly known for his installations and his kites. "Uneasy Chair," like several other pieces in the show, is a miniature chair, this one made of silver-painted rose thorns and wood. The title of the piece is apt; it would be difficult to sit on this chair, not only because it's so tiny, but because rose thorns are on the seat, back and legs. Next to "Uneasy Chair" is "Let X = X," by Melanie Walker. Walker, who typically works with photography, has taken a small chalk slate and attached a pair of dollhouse chairs to the front. The pairing of Peters's work with Walker's is appropriate, since the two are partners and have collaborated in recent years.

In the large back gallery, viewers are confronted by a group of full-sized chairs. First up is the elegant "Untitled," by Emmett Culligan, the wunderkind of Denver's sculpture scene. This chair is one of the handful of functional items in the show--not surprising, since Culligan's day job is as a furniture maker. And like his sculptures, it's so overbuilt, you could probably park a car on it. Using straps and tubular steel to form the frame, Culligan has set a pair of sandstone blocks on top to serve as seat and back. Alongside "Untitled" is "Tree Chair," by well-known sculptor Bernice Strawn. Strawn's chair is nominally functional but would probably fall apart if anyone other than Calista Flockhart should alight upon it. Using found tree boughs to form the structure, Strawn holds the piece together with planks in a ladder-back arrangement. Especially nice is the contrast of the twigs' natural color with the blue paint used on the seat and the green for the back.

Behind this group is a large oil painting by Madeleine Dodge called "Golden Mean." It sets a rendering of a paint-splashed chair alongside a series of illustrations of birds. The relationship of the different images is meant to suggest the Pythagorean notion of ideal proportion. Dodge, who is best known as an abstract painter, takes a realistic approach in "Golden Mean," so it's not surprising to find that she based this painting on a collage she created as a preparatory study.

One of the most interesting pieces in the show is an untitled work by Richard Colvin and Katherine Temple that occupies the small niche in the rear of the gallery. Colvin and Temple, who often collaborate, have created an installation with found chairs and sheets of glass. One element of the piece is a pair of yellow painted chairs; one is placed on top of a piece of transparent glass, and the other is suspended below it. Off to the left is an arrangement made of mirrors and three black painted bent-wood chairs. Colvin and Temple have placed these chairs in such a way that the distinction between them and their reflections is blurred. It is one of the best things the two artists have ever done.

Returning to the main space of the gallery, viewers are confronted by a pair of pieces by renowned photographer Albert Chong. The first is a large photographic color print called "Blessing the Throne for Gorilla"; adjacent to it is a sculpture titled "Throne for Mr. Baker." Both take up the Jamaica-born artist's interest in magic. The photo has a chair in the center that is surrounded by fruit offerings; off to the side, Chong is seen blowing smoke. The sculpture is a chair on which altered animal horns have been mounted. Though there is a functional seat, a simultaneously whimsical and disturbing black animal head has been placed on it in such a way as to prevent the chair from being used.

Opposite the Chongs are a pair of edgy representational paintings by Peter Illig, one of the city's most unfairly underrated artists. Illig's style is somewhat traditional in the two oil-on-canvas compositions. In "Friendship of Gilgamesh," two young men sit on a couch; "Allegory of Painting" is a mock triptych on the various roles of women. Both Illig paintings have the character of creepy detective-novel covers that contrasts with the mundane scenes he captures.

Exhibition organizer Perisho pointed out that "Waiting," the Lawrence Argent installation just beyond the Illigs, has been the big hit of Chairs! "People just stand and stare at it," she says. And little wonder, since it includes a video loop that demands attention. Argent has placed a rusting metal lawn chair on a stand; near it he has positioned a beat-up found ladder from which a bucket is suspended. The bucket has been pierced with holes plugged up with wine-bottle corks, but it's more than just a design element of the piece: Hidden within it is a video projector. Argent uses the video to place images of people's backsides onto the seat of the chair. Amazingly, these likenesses are both readily recognizable and surprisingly abstract. And some are shocking, like the nude young man whose testicles are placed dead center in the image.

Adjacent to "Waiting" are two wall-hung assemblages by Carlos Santistevan that continue this artist's longtime interest in the creation of santos or, more specifically, bultos. Santistevan traces his lineage back to Pedro Antonio Fresquis, a santero artist who worked in New Mexico at the turn of the eighteenth century. Combining traditional Chicano religious imagery with the methods and concepts of contemporary art, Santistevan creates highly sophisticated work. In "Nuestra Senora," he hangs a chair upside down on the wall, drapes it with lace and adorns it with artificial flowers. Hung on the inverted back is a straw weaving of the Madonna. "The Passion" is another wall-hung chair--this one right side up--that has been handled as though it were an altar screen, or reredo. The back has been painted with a scene of the crucifixion, in front of which Santistevan has placed a wooden carving of the risen Christ.

Around the corner, in the pair of large north galleries, are some of the most abstract pieces in the show--beautiful drawings by Sharon Smolinski in which there may or may not be images of chairs. In "Shapes I," a charcoal and pastel on paper, Smolinski assembles scribbles and a smudged black field. The technique is spontaneous and gestural, with marks used to create what seems to be a completely non-objective piece.

In the middle of the gallery is an unusual work by Andy Libertone, one of the state's best sculptors. During the last several decades, Libertone has been all over the stylistic map. Even so, "Heavy Planet Slider" is unexpected. For this piece, Libertone uses unfinished wood to construct a throne that he has upholstered with flattened aluminum cans.

Among the last pieces in Chairs! is a group of paintings on paper by Rita Derjue that record views of Donald Lipski's "Yearling," the sculpture of a horse on a big red chair that sits on the lawn of the Denver Public Library. Of the pieces included in the show, these Derjues are the most traditional.

As usual, Perisho has done a good job of assembling a wide range of diverse talent for Chairs! "I came up with this show so that people could use their imaginations," she recalls. And that's the case not only for the included artists, but for exhibition visitors as well.

Where is he now? Remember Ernest T. Bass from the old Andy Griffith Show? He was the dim-witted yokel who would come into Mayberry periodically, much to the consternation of Sheriff Andy Taylor and his loyal deputy, Barney Fife. During his visits, Bass would often turn his unwanted amorous attentions toward a young lady. He would then be rebuffed and, as a result, declare war on Mayberry. He'd jump up and down, cackle and then hurl rocks through the shop windows on Main Street.

After the show was canceled, Bass found himself adrift, and unlike his better-recognized co-stars, he did not get a lucrative residual deal and so had to find a job. Though it is little known, Bass wound up in Denver. He changed his name to Bob Ewegen and began writing for the Denver Post. And because he was still on probation for his defenestration efforts, he began to throw insults instead of stones--this time aiming not at windows, but at the people who hope to make Denver a better place to live.

I'm kidding, of course. Comparing Bass to Ewegen is a cheap shot and thoroughly unfair--to Bass.

Bass may have been a bad egg, but at least he never thought of the Holocaust as a source for humor, as Ewegen did in a column published on June 28 with a title nearly--but not quite--as stupid as its content: "Jar Jar Binks IS Denver." Apparently the totally out-of-it Ewegen thinks that referring to the current Star Wars movie would make him seem hip. It doesn't.

The point of his column--if there was one--was that Denver shouldn't construct a proposed but not yet funded gateway arch in front of Denver Union Terminal (known to all as Union Station). There had been a gateway arch on this site before: The 1906 Welcome Arch, also called the Mizpah Arch, which was removed in 1931. The suggested new arch is set to be designed by internationally famous Swiss architect Mario Botta. If built, it will include water features and laser beams and will serve as a centerpiece for a proposed park to replace the ugly parking lot. These ambitious plans were drawn up by the Millennium Marker Steering Committee, headed by architect Ron Mason.

But Ewegen had already knocked the arch in an unsigned editorial with the title "Arch Enemies," published the week before. So he filled his bylined piece with his by now old-hat attack on Denver's Annex I, a masterpiece of mid-twentieth-century architecture that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1940s Annex I is currently the focus of a preservation struggle; its designation as a Denver landmark is pending. Current plans call for Annex I to be rehabbed and incorporated into a proposed new city and county administration building.

Ewegen thinks it's funny to compare the Bauhaus-inspired Annex I on Denver's Civic Center to Hitler's bomb shelter, the FYhrerbunker, which is what he calls the building, despite the fact that der FYhrer, like Ewegen, hated modern architecture. Hitler went so far as to close the Bauhaus in 1933, arresting or casting into exile its teachers and students, most of whom eventually wound up in the U.S. or Israel. Ewegen, for his part, went so far as to reveal that he is ignorant of any of this--though it has been a pretty big story for more than half a century.

Though European modern architects fled for their lives from Europe, Annex I was not designed by exiles; rather, the building was the work of a trio of now-deceased American-born architects, Dudley Smith, Casper Hegner and Tom Moore, all of whom served in World War II--on our side. But Ewegen wasn't finished with his disgraceful know-nothingness. He also denounced Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has been a champion of excellence in urban design and has thus raised the ire of Ewegen, who is himself a champion of mediocrity.

Chairs! Chairs! Chairs!, through July 17, at the Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207.

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