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Emilio Lobato and Emmett Culligan get in shape at Havu

“Human Trajectory: Cornerstone, Milestone, Headstone,” by Emilio Lobato, mixed materials.
“Human Trajectory: Cornerstone, Milestone, Headstone,” by Emilio Lobato, mixed materials.

Anyone visiting the William Havu Gallery right now will be thinking about constructivism — or at least the idea of making things through the assembly of rectilinear shapes — even before they get to the building and the exhibit inside. That's because of the construction site right across the street from the gallery. In recent months, half a block's worth of buildings have been cleared to provide space for a planned high-rise called EnV. The design of the building reveals a handsome neo-modernist tower with lots of geometric handling of both surfaces and details. From the drawings produced by the Denver office of Page Southerland Page, EnV promises to be an aesthetic antidote to the Prado, which is just down the block and is definitely one of the ugliest high-rises ever erected in Colorado.

Once you're in front of Havu, the constructivist mood continues with a couple of outdoor sculptures, one by Michael Clapper and another by Emmett Culligan (more about him in a moment).

Inside, the main attraction is Emilio Lobato: The Measure of a Man, which includes more than sixty works, most of them new, that cover the walls of the entire gallery. Lobato has long been a prolific artist, but this level of output is impressive even for him. And given his approach to color in these works — there's a preponderance of bright and strong tones, as opposed to the dark and muted shades that characterize much of his oeuvre of the last decade — you'd never guess that they relate to grief.

Here's the backstory: Lobato's wife, Darlene Sisneros, whom he met at Colorado College when they were both students there, died in 2012 after a long battle with cancer. Lobato essentially gave up art-making for a year in order to oversee Darlene's care, and returned to his craft afterward. He didn't write a statement for this show; instead, he asked his two adult daughters, Paloma Sisneros Lobato and Pilar Sisneros Lobato, to write brief essays describing his motivations from their points of view. According to them, most of the works at Havu relate to Lobato's attempt to deal with his feelings of loss and inadequacy. That explains the liberal use of rulers, yardsticks, tape measures and other devices used to determine length, as well as the exhibit's subtitle, The Measure of a Man. Had he done all he could? Had he measured up? (His daughters, by the way, believe fervently that Lobato acted heroically all through his wife's illness, proving to them that he did indeed measure up.)

After getting back into the studio, Lobato was obviously in a frenzy, driven to create one interesting piece after another. The works are all related, but with a wide range of individual expressions. Lobato's "paintings" are sometimes actually bas-reliefs that use three-dimensional elements in the same way a painter would employ flat shapes, so they are not meant to be seen in the round. He has long used collage elements, often book pages, to establish an underlying compositional order. That technique is used here, too.

I'll be honest: I thought that every piece in this show was interesting and worthy of consideration, but some of them were so fabulous, they were showstoppers. Tops on this list is the poignantly titled yet quietly elegant "Human Trajectory: Cornerstone, Milestone, Headstone," a monumental — and monumentally dense — wall panel that obviously refers to his wife's (or anyone's) journey through life, but functions as a constructivist abstract when freed of the narrative aspects. It's laid out over a field constructed of book pages lined up across the panel. Built up above this ground and parallel to it is a complex skeletal structure made out of vintage and virtually obsolete measuring devices such as a protractor, hinged rulers and yardsticks. It's breathtaking.

With the works in the show being generally about loss, it was still somewhat of surprise to find Lobato doing an homage to the late Dale Chisman. But then I remembered that Chisman was a mentor to Lobato and that both had studied with the great Mary Chenoweth, which invariably links the work of all three. (Now, there's a show I'd love to see.) In "For Dale (Chisman)," Lobato has laid down a dark ground with circles and squares of color barely emerging from it; over it is a ladder form made of cut-up yardsticks, in reference to Chisman's use of ladder shapes.

Despite the memorial aspects of this show, it's not funereal at all, and is actually triumphant and even joyful — definitely measuring up as a truly great solo.

Together with the Lobato show, Havu has included a smaller though equally impressive display titled Emmett Culligan: New Works, which fills the open space on the main floor with mostly large sculptures. These new pieces are obviously the heirs of the Culligan sculpture sited just outside the front door, a spire of inflated steel — pushed out with air when heated up — that's been allowed to rust. The forms of the newer pieces inside, which also feature inflated steel, are more complex formally, even if the concepts that underlie both types of work are pretty much the same.

Culligan has frequently combined metal and stone, and that's what he's done in "Rubric #1." To create the gate-like stile that rises off a blackened steel base, he piled up alternating painted stainless-steel boxes and similarly shaped blocks of carved rhyolite. Both elements have been made so that they bulge out in the center and taper toward the ends. Though the divisions between these blocky elements are clear, the distinction between the metal and stone has been minimized through color, with both having nearly (though not quite) the same shade. A similar approach is seen in "Rubric #2," a huge, canted, open box, likewise done in painted stainless steel and rhyolite, and likewise having both kinds of elements carried out in essentially the same color.

There's also a piece made entirely of blackened stainless steel ("Rubric #3"), in which stacked interlocking cubic shapes form a totem. The blackening of the stainless steel gives the whole thing a jewelry-like sheen, which lends it an elegant air. Culligan is part of an elite group of contemporary sculptors working around here, and exhibits like this one, featuring examples of his finely made and thoughtful work, definitely support that lofty status.

“Rubric #1,” by Emmett Culligan, stainless steel and rhyolite.
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