"Talis," by Emmett Culligan, granite, marble and steel sculpture.
"Talis," by Emmett Culligan, granite, marble and steel sculpture.

Hard and Fast

It's all but official: Young Denver artist Emmett Culligan can now be considered one of the top contemporary sculptors in Colorado. And the proof is in the spectacular Emmett Culligan: Sculpture, currently on display at Judish Fine Arts.

The show, which opened a couple of weeks ago, has generated a huge amount of positive word of mouth, so I was afraid I'd be disappointed when I finally got to see it last week. As it happened, I was knocked out by the impressive show -- and I expect you will be, too.

Culligan was born in 1972, grew up in Wheat Ridge and earned his sculpture degree from the University of Colorado's Denver campus in 1995, though he briefly attended the Art Students League in New York. His first important exhibit was a 1998 solo in the main space at Pirate; that show gained him instant status as one of the area's most talked-about up-and-coming young talents.


Emmett Culligan: Sculpture and Zach Smith: linguistic antibody

Emmett Culligan: Sculpture
Through March 1
Judish Fine Arts, 3011 Vallejo Street

Zach Smith: linguistic antibody
Through February 15
Cordell Taylor Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street

And things have been on the upswing for him ever since. Ron Judish, director of Judish Fine Arts, recognized Culligan's talent immediately and soon asked him to join the respected gallery's stable. Since 1999, Culligan's work has been seen at Judish in several group shows and in two solos, including this one.

Culligan's material of choice is stone, making Colorado a veritable treasure trove, an ideal place for him to live. "I travel to quarries all over Colorado looking for the right kind of stone," he says. "The quarries themselves are beautiful; some of them are at the top of the mountains. I select the stone, mostly remnants, and I bring the pieces back to my studio. Then I spend a lot of time with the stones and develop an intimate relationship with them. When I get around to making the sculptures, they are very much about the materials -- and I think they speak for themselves in this way."

The ready supply of stone is only part of Colorado's appeal. "I have a real affinity for the area," Culligan says. "If, as an artist, you can deal with having a great city to live in and the complacency that comes with that, then Denver's the place -- and at a certain point, you have to realize how lucky you are to be here." I'm happy he's here, too.

The show begins outside, in the gallery's forecourt. On a pedestal off to the right is Culligan's gigantic "Colid," a smart abstract construction. To create the piece, Culligan took a thick, squat slab of pink sandstone and paired it with a thin, sleek wedge of white marble. The two heavy chunks of stone are connected to one another with fabricated steel and cast-bronze fittings and hardware. One of Culligan's strengths is his successful exploitation of disparate colors, textures and tactile qualities of different materials, especially the rich array of native stone.

The two pieces of connected stone lean in the same direction, precariously perched and appearing ready to fall at any moment. But, in fact, they're held firmly in balance and hold the entire piece in place. "The two elements need each other to stay in balance; neither can exist without the other -- not just aesthetically, but physically. They literally need each other to exist together," Culligan explains, adding that this narrative component -- the necessary interaction of the two parts of "Colid" -- refers to humanity and makes his work neo-modern. "Modern work tends to be cold and unemotional," Culligan says, "and maybe I might say my work is modern, but I know it's different, because it's very emotional."

Proceeding inside the gallery, visitors will almost immediately come upon two additional balanced stone sculptures. Down the stairs and straight ahead is "Jayble," and in the space to the right, "Talis." Despite being indoors, these sculptures are every bit as big as "Colid," so getting them in place was quite a trick, according to Culligan.

"Jayble" is composed of a low rose-granite wedge juxtaposed with a tall rectilinear stile made of white marble and matching rose granite. Mounted on one side of the stile, at the points where it is made of granite, is a massive, U-shaped, cast-steel pipe that visually pierces the granite wedge. Although the two elements are roughly vertical instead of leaning over, as in "Colid," "Jayble" still looks as if it might fall over any minute. But Culligan notes that the physics of these pieces has been carefully engineered -- in spite of appearances to the contrary.

Engineering plays an essential role in the last of the three balanced rock sculptures on display at Judish. "Talis" is a dynamic composition that visually conveys the tension of gravitational forces as they work against one another. In it, a big slab of rose granite soars preposterously into the air, held in place by a semi-cylindrical, boulder-sized hunk of white marble. Handmade fixtures of steel and stainless steel connect the two pieces of stone.

In addition to his balanced pieces, Culligan also creates singular-form sculptures, and the Judish show includes one stunning example, "Unis," which is installed at the back of the side space. Here Culligan set a wing-shaped piece of red granite on its end, then ran a vertical stripe of laminated absolute black granite up the front of the very tall piece, creating a luxurious visual effect, especially along the nearly invisible joints. The simplicity of "Unis" is appealing, but the handling of the material and its bold sense of composition links it to "Colid," "Jayble" and "Talis."

There's a much looser relationship between these monumental sculptures and the four small wall sculptures that finish out the Culligan show. Whereas the monumental floor sculptures seem to take up issues of material, process, narrative and physics, these wall sculptures are more organic in inspiration, with references to the figure and to parts of the body. Plus, they're exemplars of an entirely new direction for Culligan.

"They're androgynous and have elements of both male and female, because I wanted to get out of the specifics of gender," he says. "At the same time, I don't want them to be overly organic -- I don't want to invent a new chicken -- so I bring mechanized elements to the organic."

Unlike the floor sculptures, the wall sculptures are very elaborate, but the combination of stone and metal connects them all. "Granite, marble, stainless steel. How could I possibly go wrong?" Culligan asks rhetorically.

Considering the modernist formalism that's not far beneath the metaphorical surface of Culligan's sculptures, it's consistent that he would be interested in the concept of beauty, a hotly contested issue in contemporary art. Though beauty was decidedly out of vogue for a while, it's now back -- big time. "I am not afraid to say that I'm a great fan of beauty and harmony in sculpture," Culligan says. "I always have been."

Beauty is also a concern that's laid out in Zach Smith: linguistic antibody, installed up front at the Cordell Taylor Gallery -- though I've got the feeling that the 24-year-old Smith would hate to think about it. He's a rebel who is much more interested in provocation than beauty. For example, he's a member of the in-your-face performance group the Motoman Project, which he founded with Joseph Riché and Eric DeWine.

But Smith's craftsmanship is meticulous, as is his instinctual sense for chaste, bare-bones compositions, making his sculptures beautiful whether he likes it or not. In every other way, however, they're as different from Culligan's works as night is from day.

Smith was born in Houston in 1978 and came to Denver in December 1997 to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. "When I was in high school, I would stay up all night drawing and making movies. I came to RMCAD in the first place to study drawing. But then I met Chuck [Parson], Martha [Russo] and Bryan [Andrews], and because of their influence, I became a sculptor," he says with a laugh.

For the show at Cordell Taylor, Smith has created only two works: a multimedia installation, "Linguistic Antibody," and the large wall sculpture "Modular Attrition." Both seem to be extensions of the ideas he's been dealing with over the past few years.

The installation "Linguistic Antibody," from which the show takes its name, has two main components: elements hung on the wall and elements placed on a cart on the floor. Hanging on the wall is a metal panel with a Texas Instruments Speak & Spell machine from the '80s flanked by propeller-like devices and a pair of audio speakers just beyond. On the top of the cart are four archaic Texas Instruments computers, including two Speak & Spells, a Speak & Read and a Speak & Math. "These are the beginnings of what we have today," Smith says. "They were the electronics I was raised on."

He rewired the computers, connecting them to an amplifier so that they can be played like organ keyboards, the notes being created from the machines' synthetic voices. Smith's interest in sound in his installations, especially music, is something he sees as being central to his work. "I've always been messing around with music," Smith says, "and I still buy CDs as much as I buy materials. I always use music in performances, both my own and Motoman's."

The wall sculpture "Modular Attrition" is something else, being both static and silent. Made of sheets and bars of steel, it is hieratic in composition and absolutely symmetrical except for the white-painted carved tree limb in the middle. The installation contrasts with the sculpture, and Smith readily acknowledges the dichotomy. "Texas Zach did 'Linguistic Antibody,' and Colorado Zach did 'Modular Attrition,'" he says wryly.

Smith has some wild ideas that go way beyond playing Speak & Spell keyboards -- like blowing things up in his performances, which he's done before. Wild, yes, but he's smart and skillful as well. And that's why these two pieces in Zach Smith at Cordell Taylor are all that's necessary for a first-rate show.


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