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Hard Work

"Arch," by Jonathan W. Hils, welded and powder-coated steel.

Well, I've decided to make it official and issue a formal statement on the matter: I hate juried shows. They're the slums among group shows, and it's hard to believe they're still being done. I don't even know why I still go to see them.

The problems with juried shows are multidimensional. Few established artists enter, because most view being judged as beneath their artistic station. That would be okay if lots of emerging artists entered, but they don't. The kids pass up juried shows because they're so green that they don't even know about them. Having both the old-timers and the youngsters take a powder on juried shows clearly hobbles the possibilities for good exhibits.

The limited appeal of juried shows among artists is not the worst problem, however. No, that honor goes to the jurors themselves. The jury pool is made up of art-world figures of all sorts, including curators, critics, collectors and, worst of all, artists. I say worst of all because artists have aesthetic points of view they can't help but express when judging the works of others. Some reject everything that isn't compatible with their ideas, while others reject everything that is.

What's inspired this edict against runaway jurors and the consequent miscarriage of exhibition justice is James Surls's choices in the North American Sculpture Exhibition 2004 at Golden's Foothills Art Center. I have no clue as to what Surls might have been thinking when he came up with his selections.

Surls is from Texas, and he built a national career with organic abstract sculpture that is often made of carved wood. In 1998, he moved to Basalt and immediately became one of the most famous artists in Colorado.

Despite his taste for abstraction -- or perhaps because of it -- there's hardly any in the NASE, which has a preponderance of figural sculpture instead. Stylistically, Surls chose both traditional works that could have been done in the nineteenth century and conservative contemporary pieces that could have been done thirty years ago. This gives the show a stale aura, as though it were documenting some long-archaic version of the art scene.

Was it a protest? There are so many penises -- including some gigantic, uncut ones -- that I had to wonder if Surls was trying to offend the conservatives in Golden. In this questionable category is the carved-wood-and-metal "David," by Canadian artist Lazar Christian Fonkin, which is ambitious, if hideous, and "Homo," in fiberglass, by Kentucky's William Papineau that's equally bad. These two anatomically correct male nudes are the most outrageous pieces, because they're the ones with those gigantic wangers. Now, I like penises as well as the next person, perhaps even more, but neither "David" nor "Homo" is any good in any other way -- and neither is much else in the NASE.

With nearly seventy pieces selected by Surls, there are, of course, a few good things. In the first gallery, for example, only two objects caught my eye: "Windows to the World," a painted bronze by Denver's Jan Steinhauser, and "Arch," a lyrical powder-coated welded-steel piece by Jonathan W. Hils from Oklahoma. The Steinhauser combines geometric shapes with organic ones, while the Hils is simpler in form but more complex in its details.

Quite a bit farther along in the show is another standout: "Rules and Regulations #2," by Kansas artist Marc Berghaus. The constructed mixed-materials piece is a vertical solid described by a skeletal metal grid. This grid encloses glass boxes suggestive of aquariums since they encase mechanized fish. Suspended within the grid is a realistic version of a nude male (Berghaus himself?), and mounted on one side is a real -- if tiny -- aquarium with a live fighting fish swimming inside.

Also of interest is "Compromise," a steel, latex and tricot sculpture by Utah artist Tyler Meadows Davis that looks like a Chinese lantern on steroids. Across from it is a set of three documentary images of a vortex in a lake by New York artist Sara Hutson Chaffin. The idea is great, but it's hard to appreciate when presented in this limited way.

The NASE has a few other things that are noteworthy, but the show is a dog overall. However, there is some good news: It has to make anyone rejected by Surls feel a lot better about the whole thing.


The NASE at the Foothills Art Center may be in questionable taste, but surely that will not be the case with the planned redo of the front lawn. It's being turned into the Carol and Don Dickinson Sculpture Garden, designed by a team that includes landscape architect Susan Saarinen, architect Ted Schultz and internationally known sculptor Jess Moroles. The garden will feature a serpentine staircase winding up the hill at the corner of 15th Street and Washington Avenue, as well as matching retaining walls with benches and a table. Everything will be made of granite finished similarly to the three Moroles spires being installed along the staircase. Though still in the preliminary design phase with specifics yet to be refined, it's moving fast and will be completed this fall.

 


Sculpture is also the main attraction at LoDo's Robischon Gallery, where John Buck: New Sculpture is paired with the tasty little confection Manuel Neri: Sculpture/Drawings. This marks the fourth time that Buck has been the subject of a single-artist presentation at Robischon, and it's the third time for Neri. Buck, who mostly lives in Montana, and Neri, who's from California, are among the most significant contemporary artists working out West.

The large, wonderful solo John Buck occupies the set of spaces up front, and it represents a clear continuation of the kind of work Buck's been doing for a long time. His signature sculptures are torsos with elaborate abstract carvings in place of the figure's head. Because of where he places these abstractions, it's easy to interpret that Buck is trying to convey the image of thinking.

The exhibit includes not only these iconic freestanding figures, but also related relief panels and prints; all three types are installed together in a delightful rhythm throughout this fairly large group of spaces. The exhibit starts off with one of the prints, a woodblock rubbing titled "Tulip" that depicts the flower standing out from sea of other images. The rubbing process Buck uses creates lines that are lighter than the ground, with the print winding up richly dark. Buck is just as famous for his prints as he is for his three-dimensional pieces, and, happily, the Robischon presentation includes a good sampling of his works on paper.

Just beyond, hanging across from one another on the joined walls of the entry space, are two of Buck's elegant relief sculptures. To the right is "King Street (black)," and to the left is "The Weed." Both are made of carved jelutong wood. These wall pieces have two principal planes -- a base plane that's been painted, and an overlying carved plane left in the wood's natural color. Each sculpture includes renditions of mundane objects -- or, more to the point, ubiquitous ones. In "King Street (black)," there's a mustache and goatee, among other things, and in "The Weed," there's the expected appearance of a seedpod, as well as the unexpected sight of a padlock and key.

The relief panels bracket one of Buck's characteristic torsos, "Adobe Walls," in jelutong wood with acrylic, depicting a female nude with a variety of shapes -- two disks, an elaborate geometric configuration and a twig with leaves -- balanced precariously on her head.

There are a few things that set these newest Buck sculptures apart from his earlier pieces. The most important is that his figures, which were conventionalized before, have become increasingly naturalistic. And they used to be androgynous, but now they're clearly either male or female, carved with unmistakable anatomical details. Also new are the integral bases with rectangular shapes that have been softened by all-over chip carving and go perfectly with the figures.

After walking through the large Buck show, I was surprised at how impressive the small Manuel Neri exhibit is. Crammed into the fairly tight Viewing Room, the show, despite its modest size, has the mood of a museum offering and includes abstract figural sculpture -- Neri's acknowledged forte -- along with paintings on paper. The subject of these sculptures and paintings is invariably the same: the nude body of Neri's model, Mary Julia Klemenko. Neri has worked almost exclusively with Klemenko for more than thirty years.

Neri emerged as an important California artist in the late 1950s, when he was associated with the Bay Area figural school that was flourishing at that time. By the 1970s, he was garnering national and even international attention for his highly original work.

A typical Neri sculpture combines a classically beautiful rendition of the female form that has a whiff of Greece or Rome along with a decidedly funky attitude. This juxtaposition of classic and funk is resolved by Neri's expert handling of the forms and surfaces, and by his unusual use of paint on bronze, marble and plaster, his favorite material.

The Neri show at Robischon includes a life-sized bronze, "Untitled Kneeling Figure," which has been painted white, and two plasters, "M.J. Torso II" and "M.J. Torso III," that have had earth-toned dry pigments rubbed over them, one in gray and the other mostly white. These plasters are striking and are both formal and informal. One of the informal features is the use of a sheet of plaster-stained plywood as a base.

 

As with the Bucks up front, all the Neris are completely engaging and very well done. I found the show at Robischon an especially good way to cleanse my visual palate, so to speak, after seeing the Foothills fiasco -- though I'm afraid nothing can erase the bad memory of it.


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