Separate Ways

Chuck Parson and Emilio Lobato follow different paths to formalist abstraction.

I've been pretty tough on Jerry Gilmore, chief curator and director of the art program at the Arvada Center, because he seemed to model his behavior on that of the proverbial bull in a china shop. Soon after he took over a few years ago, for example, longtime staff members Rudi Cerri and Susan Sagara Bolton were forced out -- much to the consternation of longtime supporters and volunteers.

But today, with a crack new staff in place, things have obviously settled down. And, reluctant as I am to do so, I'm going to say something good about Gilmore: He made two smart calls booking the pair of solos that now occupy separate floors at the center. In the capacious spaces that make up the Lower Galleries, there's Charles Parson: Landscape's Sonnet; in the large rooms of the Upper Galleries, it's Emilio Lobato: Candela: Slow Burn.

I've called Chuck Parson the hardest-working man in the art-show business, and Landscape's Sonnet proves he's earned that title. The show includes a staggering number of drawings, wall-relief panels, sculptures and installations; unbelievably, Parson was able to fill the nearly 7,000 square feet of space in the Lower Galleries to absolute capacity, and he did it with creations from just the last year or so. Since this involves a mind-blowing amount of labor, you'd think that Parson must be in the studio 'round the clock. But he's clearly not, because he does so many other things: He teaches at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, works as a contract mural painter at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and even picks up odd jobs doing signs.

Untitled installation (framed choices) by Charles Parson, steel, cord, metal grates and plastic.
Untitled installation (framed choices) by Charles Parson, steel, cord, metal grates and plastic.
"Tajada (Slice)," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.
"Tajada (Slice)," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.

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Through November 21, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org

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Parson has been an artist since his childhood in Fort Pierce, Florida, and when he was still a kid, he studied traditional landscape painting at the A. E. Backus Studio. He received his BFA degree at the renowned Kansas City Art Institute in 1970, and his MFA from Michigan's legendary Cranbrook Academy in 1972. After graduation, he got a job teaching in a school in nearby Flint. Then, on a whim, in 1973 or '74 -- he doesn't remember which -- he moved to Colorado, and though he travels widely, he's basically been here ever since. His first show in Denver was in 1974 at the Scene Gallery, essentially the lobby of the now-defunct Changing Scene theater downtown. Since then, his work has been exhibited at the most prestigious venues in the region, including the Denver Art Museum, and in galleries, art centers and museums from coast to coast. His pieces are also currently on display in the sculpture garden at Artyard, a Denver gallery that has represented Parson since the early '90s.

Landscape's Sonnet sort of begins outside the Arvada Center -- I say "sort of," because the two Parson pieces installed on the grounds are not technically part of the show. "Earthgate," a monumental construction, is on the Wadsworth Boulevard lawn; the somewhat smaller though still fairly large "Structural Underbelly" stands in a median near the center's entrance. These works, made principally of steel, cogently lay out Parson's aesthetic strategy. He's a constructivist, and rigidly horizontal and vertical elements are his lingua franca, with diagonal lines typically downplayed even if they're occasionally necessary for structural reasons. Parson says the horizontals and verticals are inspired by the Western landscape, allowing him to view his style as a kind of regionalism. Although that's a stretch, his contention that he's primarily interested in connections between humanity and the landscape is more convincing, what with his lavish and conspicuous use of chrome-plated nuts and bolts to hold the pieces together.

The show really gets under way inside, in the Lower Galleries, with dozens of drawings, many bas-relief panels and a group of freestanding sculptures. The drawings separate into two distinct categories: geometric abstractions and traditional landscapes. The bas-relief panels, which Parson calls "dimensional drawings," represent an intermediate type of work that falls between the geometric drawings and the sculptures; for these, he arranges plastic, metal and wire in compositions that have a predominant horizontal orientation and are hieratic, with the center emphasized.

The geometric abstractions and the stylistically similar "dimensional drawings" provide a perfect setup for the freestanding sculptures, all of which are untitled. The imagery is clearly architectonic. Parson is very interested in buildings and bridges and uses materials common to such construction -- in particular, ready-made steel beams that have been cut to size and then painted in monochromes, most often white, sometimes black. As counterpoints, he adds chunks of white marble to some, and plastic -- either transparent or translucent, occasionally fluorescent green -- to others. The plastic accents glow under the gallery lights and appear to be internally illuminated, but they're not.

All of these drawings, bas-relief panels and sculptures would be enough for a regular solo, but here they're almost incidental to the several enormous installations that dominate the exhibit. There's an astounding consistency to Parson's oeuvre. The geometric drawings are extensions of his straightforward landscapes. The wall sculptures are derived from the geometric drawings. The floor sculptures arise out of the "dimensional drawings." And finally, the installations are outgrowths of the sculptures.

Like all installations, these occupy discrete spaces, and viewers are encouraged to enter them. But Parson is concerned not only with what is seen, but what is heard, and he makes sounds -- either recorded music or the amplification of viewers' footsteps, or both -- key parts of some. Two of the installations, each called "Installation, variations," are reformulated versions of earlier pieces. The first, from "Moments of Being," fills a corner and includes a painted backdrop and two gravel walkways with microphones magnifying the sound of walking through the piece. The other is from "Framed Choices," which is similar in concept to "Moments of Being" but features a pair of metal-grate walkways and a plain backdrop.

All of the installations are incredible, but one is really out of this world: the thirty-foot-tall, site-specific "Descant," which was built just for this show and rises three stories in the Arvada Center's enclosed atrium. The title refers to the top line of a Christian hymn, and the piece includes a soundtrack of minimal spiritual music done by Mary Jungerman. (Parson has worked with Jungerman for decades in the experimental-music group 3/3, which also includes Joseph Kasinskas; the trio will present a concert in conjunction with Sonnet at 7 p.m. Friday, November 12, in the Lower Galleries.)

Parson is ranked among the top sculptors in Colorado, along with the likes of Robert Mangold and Carl Reed. And with this fabulous outing, it's easy to see why.

On the second floor of the center, in the aptly named Upper Galleries, is Emilio Lobato: Candela: Slow Burn -- and it's a knockout, too. Like Parson, Lobato is one of the state's most important artists, a total workaholic who produces a tremendous amount of work every year. Also like Parson, he believes his thoroughly abstract style stems from living in the American West. Lobato was born in 1959 in the small town of San Pablo in the San Luis Valley; his agrarian family has lived in that part of the state for more than 200 years. He's frequently said that the isolation of his childhood has been a continuing source of artistic inspiration -- and although that's hard to find in the work itself, judging from the dozens of paintings in this show, he must spend many hours every day toiling alone in his downtown studio.

Lobato attended Colorado College, graduating in 1982. The late Mary Chenoweth was one of his teachers in Colorado Springs, and the influence of her simple yet expressive approach to abstraction is still apparent in his paintings. But there are other stylistic sources for Lobato's signature style, including Russian vanguard art of the early twentieth century. Many of the mixed-media paintings owe a debt of gratitude to El Lissitzky, who worked in Russia a century ago. Just like Lissitzky, Lobato loves creating compositions that juxtapose circles with straight lines, as seen in the breathtaking "Tajada (Slice)," a collage and oil on canvas. (Come to think of it, Chenoweth's style is related to Lissitzky's, too.)

Relying on his instinctual sense for composition, Lobato assembles ordinary shapes -- in addition to the aforementioned circles and lines, rectangles and bars -- into extraordinarily powerful formalist arrangements. The shapes are each a different color, though he uses the same palette for most of his paintings: a deep red, lots of black, and a browned-out off-white. One piece is done entirely in that antique-looking off-white color: "Candela (Slow Burn)," the exhibition's title piece, in collage on canvas. Technically, this painting is light in color, but with all those brown tones, and within the context of the rest of the show, it "reads" dark. An all-over abstraction, "Candela" is virtually constructivist, as is "DINDI," in which Lobato covered the surface with horizontal stripes and bars in red and green on an ecru field of book pages.

Lobato's somber palette has a Hispanic character, harking back to the deep tones associated with the Spanish baroque style. That approach was important both in Spain and in its colonies, including San Pablo, which was in Nueva Espana but is now in Colorado.

But the deep tones surely also reflect the dark times in Lobato's personal life: His wife of over twenty years, Darlene Sisneros, is battling cancer for the second time. Laudably, her illness didn't stop her from hosting a Ken Salazar fundraiser at the William Havu Gallery last month. And speaking of Havu, Lobato has work on view there, as well: He has a large group of pieces in Compose Construct, his duet with fellow Colorado artist Stan Meyer. Preparing for Candela: Slow Burn would seem like more than enough effort for one artist to expend in a year, but apparently it wasn't enough for Lobato.

The Parson and Lobato shows are each captivating on their own, and together they represent a very strong season opener for the lately irrelevant Arvada Center. Their presence may not completely redeem controversial curator Jerry Gilmore, but it's a good start.

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