Beneath the Beast

A tile mural by Martha Daniels aims to ennoble an ignoble public space.

Art displayed in public places dates back to the very start of civilization. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Chinese, the Romans and many other ancient cultures adorned their buildings and streets with art.

And the situation has changed little over these several millennia. In the here and now of Denver, a whole lot of public art will soon be coming on line, thanks to the impending completion of the Colorado Convention Center and the under-construction Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum. A little over a week ago, a large, freestanding sculpture, "Indeterminate Line," by French artist Bernar Venet, was installed on the convention center's Speer Boulevard side at Stout Street. Essentially a three-story-tall scribble done in COR-TEN steel, "Indeterminate Line" is one of the greatest pieces in the city.

It's not surprising that this work would be located downtown -- where those soon-to-become DAM treasures will be -- because in the middle of things is exactly where important public art has been situated since antiquity. In fact, downtown is where I'd expect to find something as sophisticated and elegant as "Currents and Eddies," by Martha Daniels, a tile mural inspired by the Platte River. It would look absolutely great on Speer Boulevard, not far from that spectacular new Venet. Instead, "Currents and Eddies" is marooned in one of the most unpleasant public spaces imaginable: within the Washington Street underpass at I-70.

I suppose there's logic to this absurd placement. First, the money for the commission came from the Colorado Department of Transportation as part of its seemingly endless highway improvements near the National Western Complex. Second, it could be argued that such a bleak spot has a much greater need for art than downtown.

It may seem as though I'm exaggerating how bad this site is, but I'm not. The immediate area is crowded with run-down commercial and industrial buildings of no particular style or character. Plus you take your life in your own hands if you try to view the piece up close from the sidewalk, because the traffic is very heavy and features more than its fair share of semi-trucks and concrete mixers. And coming right off the interstate, they're moving fast. (I can't imagine how harrowing an experience it must have been to install "Currents and Eddies" from elevated scaffolding!)

Given these conditions, Daniels wanted a mural made up of large abstract shapes that would be readily recognizable by people riding in the swiftly passing cars and trucks. The subtle -- and not so subtle -- shifts in surface effects makes the piece work in a completely different way when it's examined up close. However, this is something I cannot in good conscience recommend that you do.

I did not discover "Currents and Eddies" on my travels around the city. To be honest, I absolutely never find myself on Washington Street under I-70. What happened is what always happens when something great is suddenly out there: People call me up and ask if I've seen it. That's what's been happening with that Venet on the lawn of the CCC and -- more astoundingly, considering its location -- the Daniels under the expressway.

Those who called me had made a point of seeking out the mural because of Daniels's considerable reputation as a ceramic artist. In truth, no matter who had done "Currents and Eddies," it would be great. But as you notice the tremendous artistic ambition -- the way the materials, forms and overall composition have been brought to the contemporary edge -- you realize it couldn't have been done by anyone other than Daniels.

A major player here for decades, Daniels has work in many significant collections in the area, including the DAM's, which owns three of her signature towers and had them on view during this summer's sin Colorado/scene Colorado. A few years ago, Daniels also had a solo show at the DAM, a rare honor for a Colorado artist. In addition, the Kirkland Museum has collected her work in some depth, and her pieces are currently available for purchase at the William Havu Gallery, where her incredible "Red Nike" sculpture is installed on the mezzanine.

Born Martha Kerms in New York in 1943, Daniels attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Sag Harbor before enrolling in Manhattan's prestigious art and engineering school, Cooper Union, in 1961. It was there that she began to find her unique style of expression. "At Cooper Union, Ruben Kadish introduced me to using clay as a serious sculpture medium," Daniels says. This may seem obvious today, but in the late '50s and early '60s, clay was almost exclusively used to make functional ware.

While she attended Cooper Union, Daniels also worked as a studio assistant for two famous New York artists, John Hovannes and Dorothy Dehner. Times being what they were, Daniels dropped out of college in 1963 and split for Mediterranean Europe, where she remained until 1967, when she landed in Boulder with her then-husband, Willem Daniels. She took some classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder, then hid out in the mountains before moving down to Denver in 1973 and enrolling at Metropolitan State College. While at Metro, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Daniels worked with the late, great Rodger Lang.

Over the years, Daniels has principally made her living buying and selling antiques. This activity brought her into firsthand contact with the great ceramics of the American arts-and-crafts movement of the early twentieth century. At the same time, she became exposed to modernist Scandinavian and Italian ceramics, Mexican folk art, and traditional Japanese and Chinese pottery. She has also done considerable research in ceramics history, and she often riffs on different styles in one piece, as seen in spades in "Currents and Eddies."

When the underpass project started a year or so ago, Daniels was given a choice of two themes: the river or recreation. Since the Platte runs nearby -- and since the hardscrabble world of Washington Street and I-70 is not exactly the ideal place to promote camping and hiking -- the river theme was the obvious choice.

"I have a river going through points of land, and the forms I used to create it come from the history of art and from science," Daniels says. "I looked at different depictions of water. The final shapes come from decorations on Shang bronzes and from the capitals of Carolingian columns. The big forms that come out of the frames I took directly from Japanese prints; there's lots of open space in the middle, and that's from Japanese prints, too. But all kinds of things went into the shapes. They also come out of contour drawings of water and engineering drawings of vortices tracking the movement of water.

"It's very graffiti-like, and that somehow makes it contemporary," she adds.

The mural runs along the west side of Washington Street and starts just above shoulder height. It measures 212 feet from end to end, though there is a fifteen-foot-wide expansion joint in the middle that has been left blank. Running horizontally across the composition is the river itself, symbolized by a battleship-gray painted field.

Within that field are the arching and swirling shapes inspired by all that art and science. These are carried out with thousands of American Olean swimming-pool tiles made of industrial porcelain with a matte surface. The edges are outlined in dark-blue tiles, with turquoise tiles used to make the inner lines. Finally, the shapes are fleshed out with white tiles.

John Pascal set the tiles, and Daniels encouraged him to improvise when filling in the forms that she had drawn on the wall. With that in mind, he shattered some of the tiles and pieced them in like jigsaw puzzles. And within the porcelain fields, according to Daniels's direction, he inserted rectilinear panels of shiny Venetian-glass swimming-pool tile. The glossiness of the glass provides the perfect contrasting visual effect with the flat sheen of the adjacent porcelain tiles.

Partially framing the currents and eddies are the riverbank that contains them. The land is carried out with organically shaped ceramic tiles that Daniels made in her studio with the help of assistant Larry Freeman. There are more than 2,000 of these rock-shaped tiles, with another thousand round tiles scattered throughout. They have been glazed with a gloss surface in a variety of purples and violets. Daniels points out that in the firing process, the glazes flow in the same patterns as water does, and proof of that is frozen in the tiles. The glazed pieces pick up the reflection of the passing traffic and the signal lights at the corners, an effect that is visible in daylight but even more impressive at night.

This mural is one of Daniels's greatest achievements. Its size alone ensures a place as one of the most important commissions of her life. This, of course, makes it even worse that it wound up where it did.

Though it would require a rewrite of CDOT's public-art guidelines, couldn't these highway-funded pieces be installed in nearby parks rather than under the road? As it happens, Swansea Park is only a few blocks northeast of where "Currents and Eddies" was installed, and wouldn't that have been a nicer place to see it? Sad to say, there's nothing to be done about it now, but maybe in the future, CDOT will be more flexible in identifying appropriate sites for publicly funded artworks. Yeah, right.

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