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Drought Relief

Sleekly modern, this Parson sculpture is by far the simplest composition in the series.

Well-known and widely respected Denver sculptor Charles Parson (whom everyone knows as "Chuck") is the subject of a powerful solo at Artyard, Time eventually comes up green, again, and the show is jam-packed with riveting sculptures and intriguing mixed-media drawings. This new work -- all of it done in the past few months -- is pure Parson in style, yet there's clearly been a distinct change in his direction since last year. The show's title, with its evocation of the annual renewal of nature, gives us a clue: Time is about Parson renewing himself.

In the past year, Parson has been as busy as a beaver. He exhibited a variety of large outdoor works in Illinois, Indiana, New York and Florida, and moved and installed them himself. He also displayed another recent group of sculptures at Artyard in January. And at the intersection of Quebec Street and Bayaud Avenue, there's a monumental temporary installation by Parson that's over sixty feet long. That piece, part of a show sponsored by the Museum of Outdoor Arts, will remain up through August, when it will be relocated to Hudson Gardens. (All of this, and Parson still teaches art during the day, moonlights as a commercial painter and, oh, yes, has self-published a book -- due out in a week or so and available at Artyard -- that chronicles his comeback from a devastating studio injury a few years ago.)

Only a driven workaholic like Parson would think he needed to renew himself by working more. Anyone else would realize that a well-earned rest was in order. For his part, Parson says, "I don't have a choice. I can't stop working. It's not compulsive; it's just the joy of making something."

This situation has changed little over the past thirty years. During that time, he has toiled endlessly, working in fields as far-flung as performance, installation, sculpture, painting and drawing. He developed his idiosyncratic style after receiving a classic modernist education in art -- first at the prestigious Kansas City Art Institute, where he received his BFA in 1970, and later at the renowned Cranbrook Academy, where he earned an MFA in 1972.

Viewers can verify Parson's continuing appeal -- and his inspiring work ethic -- immediately as they pull up to Artyard. Outside the gallery is a monumental sculpture, which, in spite of its heavy-metal appearance, is, like all of Parson's work, about the figure in the landscape, particularly the Western landscape. ("When I came out west in the '70s, I was pulled in by the sky and the horizon," says Parson. "I stayed just because of the horizon.") The dichotomy is interesting: Parson uses industrial materials, both found and ready-made, and creates relentlessly rectilinear compositions in a constructivist style that seems to have no relationship at all to the landscape.

And in a sense, that's the point, because Parson is a conceptualist, and he creates his pieces in relation to exterior reality. He also deals with the figure conceptually; references to it exist only in the form of the living viewer. So his work is both apart from and a part of nature and the landscape.

The outdoor sculpture at Artyard is reminiscent of a gate, even though it's impassable. Built on a rectilinear steel stand, it has two major components, a dark-colored arrangement of I-beams and a light-colored outline of a box. Short sections of I-beams form a base and cornice, with taller, paired I-beams forming the vertical shaft. The light-colored box -- originally painted a loud turquoise-green -- brings the piece down to a human scale, as does its near transparency.

Once inside the gallery, transparency becomes a big issue: The sculptures (all of which are untitled) feature lots of plate glass. Parson says the glass serves a narrative role and is meant to signify the fragility of life, but it clearly functions as a design element, too.

Even though the space is notoriously cramped, the room looks beautiful. Parson has filled it to the brim with nine sculptures -- some of them quite large -- and as many wall pieces.

Considering the show's title, Parson has used the color green only sparingly. But somehow, perhaps because a neutral gray is actually the predominant tone, the gallery seems to have a green glow to it. And all that glass, though technically transparent, is actually green, especially when seen from the side, as it most often is here.

In the middle of the gallery is the only other monumental sculpture in the show. It was too big to come through the door, so Parson assembled it on site. It's a companion to the one outside, but it contrasts with it, too. Instead of having an actual box, there's an imaginary one that viewers must fill in for themselves, suggested by the sculpture's footprint.

The main form in this piece was created with a pair of thick steel pipes standing on end and connected by heavy steel brackets held together with large chrome bolts. A sheet of glass is mounted vertically between the two brackets so that viewers can see through the center of the piece, something Parson invites them to do. The pipe-bracket-glass form is mounted on a base made from a found iron grate with what look like footpads -- also made from the found grates -- set on either side. Soaring above the piece are four thin pipes painted a luscious billiard green. The pipes rise from chrome mounts.

Parson's sculptures often look like machines, but rarely as much as this piece does, and the green pipes only heighten the comparison. It also reads like an effigy figure, though, something meant to be venerated, and that's a Parson characteristic, as well.

The other sculptures in the show are smaller, either floor pieces or tabletop works. They have a more expected totemic quality than do the monumental pieces. All provide variations on the same theme.

One is a construction made of steel and glass. The glass is used extensively to form both the principal vertical elements of the sculpture and the base. It seems strange to see a sheet of glass placed directly on the concrete floor with a heavy steel sculpture sitting on top of it -- won't it break at any minute? As unstable as it looks, however, there's no denying that the unlikely arrangement of materials delivers a big visual punch. Also effective is the use of green paint on two of the vertical members that run on either side of another sheet of glass, the edge of which glows in a similar green shade.

Another of the floor sculptures has a more predictable material content, with stacked cast-concrete blocks forming the base; the steel is used above, and the glass on top of that.

A single sculpture has been placed around the corner, in the entrance to the studio portion of Artyard. This one is perhaps the best of the batch. In it, Parson has sandwiched a piece of glass between two pieces of metal, and the resulting form has been set on end and is sitting on a base formed from a fragment of an I-beam. It's sleekly modern, and by far the simplest composition in the series.

After looking around the show for a while, I realized that everything is made up of joined pairs -- of twin forms. As a result, I began to think of the World Trade Center. The connection was so subtly presented, I almost missed it, but once I thought of it, I also realized that the twin forms Parson employs evoked the actual shape of the Twin Towers: elongated vertical rectangles. When I asked Parson about this, he said, "It was a conscious decision. I wanted people to think of 9/11."

The terrorist attack of last year is one of two tragedies that Parson uses as subtexts in this body of work; the other is the less famous destruction of downtown Limon, Colorado, in a tornado more than a decade ago.

"The green color comes from Limon," says Parson, referring to the irrigated fields that surround the town on the high plains of Colorado and stand out on the otherwise parched brown prairie.

"That's what the series title is about -- that just like in New York and in Limon, life goes on," says Parson. And without a doubt, Parson will go on, continuing to create some of the most thought-provoking work around.


It really scorches me that the city's fountains are going to remain dry this summer.

The ostensible reason for leaving them this way is the drought, but as I hardly need to point out, Denver isn't Rome, so we're only talking about a measly fourteen fountains. The amount of water that will be saved in this way is minute -- especially considering the civic and aesthetic value of the fountains -- just over four million gallons. To put this in perspective, it's estimated that five million gallons are lost to leakages in the system at large...every day.

The decision to keep the fountains dry was made by James Mejia, head of Denver's Parks and Recreation department. Bad decisions are by now a long tradition at Parks and Rec, and though Mejia is surely a less malignant force than was his predecessor, the thoroughly disgraced B.J. Brooks, there's no denying that the city's marvelous parks, which are in terrible shape, will look even worse without the fountains running.

Making grand gestures that aren't likely to do any actual good seems to be a signature of Mejia's. That's because in his other role, as a Denver Public Schools boardmember, he has done the same thing.

Noting that 60 percent of Denver School of the Arts students are white while 60 percent of DPS students are minority, Mejia is playing political football with the on-the-move magnet school by suggesting that the entry process (auditions) is patently racist. (Has Mejia noticed that the racial makeup of the DSA almost exactly reflects that of the city at large? Has he taken a look at the racial mix of other DPS activities, like high school varsity sports?)

I think it's interesting that bureaucrats and politicians -- and Mejia is both -- so often promote themselves by working out society's troubles on the back of the arts. Water shortage? Turn off the fountains. Racial inequity? Bash the DSA. With instincts like these, Mejia just might wind up as a future mayor.