Deep in the Woods

The new Foothills show is a chip off the old block.

Among the pleasures of Golden's Foothills Art Center -- other than the wonderful old church and parish house it occupies -- are several shows that are a part of its regular schedule. One of these, the North American Sculpture Exhibition, or NASE, can be counted on to be one of the rowdiest events endorsed by this rather staid institution.

But it didn't start out that way.

The show was launched in 1979 as a way to legitimize a new generation of traditional, representational sculptors who began to emerge at a time when most of the museums and galleries that showcased contemporary sculpture across the country were almost exclusively interested in abstract and non-objective sculpture. The NASE provided a rare opportunity for these new traditionalists, who had found themselves outside the system.

By the late 1980s, things had changed substantially. Representational imagery was coming on strong, some say, in response to the difficulty many people had in accepting and understanding the conceptually based movements of the 1960s and '70s, which seemed to disrespect the old values in art even more than abstract expressionism had in the '40s and '50s.

As an appreciation for new representational art grew, so did opportunities for the traditionalists to exhibit and -- more important -- to sell their art. Today there are several top-tier galleries that feature this kind of conservative work, so these artists don't need the NASE and no longer enter. In their place are sculptors who refer not only to external reality, but also to abstraction. As a result, the makeup of the NASE has changed significantly over the years.

Nothing makes this case more emphatically than a quick look at the list of "Qualifying Artist Members" of the North American Sculpture Society that appears in the catalogue accompanying the show. These sculptors have been cast into a kind of NASE hall of fame because their work has been accepted to the show a set number of times.

Representing the old guard is Glenna Goodacre, best known for her perfectly crafted monumental figures. Often romanticized views of American Indians, these figures have a conventional yet distinguished 1930s retro quality, both in the modeling and the patina. More recently ensconced in the society is Dede LaRue, an artist famous for her spray-painted dumpster flamingos and horses, and for her sometimes vulgar depictions of dogs carried out in papier-mché, glitter and feathers.

The sculptures in the 2000 edition of the NASE -- the first time the formerly annual exhibit has been put on in its new biennial format -- have little in common with Goodacre's noble depictions, however, and are much more in the tradition of those bawdy dogs. That's because the NASE is a juried show and so reflects the point of view of the single individual who selects the inclusions. In this case, it was prominent Los Angeles-based sculptor Alison Saar.

For her own work, Saar uses chisels to carve up big chunks of wood in order to convey simplified and conventionalized depictions of the figure. And guess what? This year's NASE show has a lot of carvings -- a lot. And here's a shock: Most of the sculptures feature recognizable imagery, and in most of them, it's the figure.

It seems that Saar has fallen into the worst pitfall an artist-juror can stumble into: She made her choices by mostly favoring her fellow sculptors who are in line, aesthetically, with her. Too bad for the post-minimalists who entered this year.

In fairness, there are some abstract and even a few non-objective things -- but nearly all of them feature wood, or carved elements, or passages that suggest carving. Despite this limitation, there are many fine things in the show, even if they are sometimes hard to appreciate among the also-rans that likewise made the juror's cut.

You enter Foothills through the front door of the old parish house. To the right is the former parlor, a small, oddly shaped space called the Rondell Gallery. In this room, only two pieces from the NASE have been displayed: "Seven," by Craig Robb, and "Mayan Form," by Bright Springman.

"Seven" is made of finished wooden boards, carved wooden balls and hand-cast glass panes. Robb, who lives in Englewood, has constructed a group of seven identical open-ended rectangular boxes out of the boards and put the small balls inside. The open ends are faced with the cast glass. The effect is like seeing fish in an aquarium.

"Mayan Form" is a simple, rounded organic shape in a cream-colored carved stone. Springman, who is from Riverton, Wyoming, has left chisel marks on the surface instead of polishing them out. In this way, the sculptor literally records his touch on the stone.

To the left of the entrance is the larger Metsoupoulos Gallery, in which a number of the prize winners are on display, including "Shadow Figure," a painted and carved wood sculpture by Taos artist Ellen Shade. The piece received the newly established "Jeff Bradley Memorial Award," which brings a nice honorarium of $4,000; it's the second-largest prize given by the society that underwrites the NASE. (First place brings $5,000.) Jeff Bradley, a well-known Denver Post writer who died of cancer earlier this year, was a close friend of Foothills director Carol Dickinson, herself a former journalist. In the last few years, Bradley wrote about the visual arts as part of his more broadly based critic-at-large column. He took up such topics as classical music, opera and jazz in addition to reviewing art shows. The money for the prize, as well as funding for the NASE catalogue, was provided by the NBT Foundation, a national charitable organization that has underwritten many local art projects in the last few years.

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