Heavy Thoughts

Sitting on the lawn of the Colorado Convention Center adjacent to Speer Boulevard is "Indeterminate Line," that enormous rusted-steel spiral doodle. The piece, created by Bernar Venet, is one of the most important works of art in the city. The French-born but New York-based artist has an international reputation, but Venet's local fame dates back only to the unveiling of his piece two years ago.

In order to take advantage of the public's new awareness of the sculptor, the venerable Robischon Gallery is presenting Bernar Venet: Sculpture and Works on Paper. Though modest in scope and featuring only one mid-sized sculpture among a half-dozen small ones, the Venet exhibit is still heart-stopping in its elegance.

Venet was born in 1941 in the French Alps. By the age of ten, he was already drawing and painting, and by eleven, he'd exhibited a piece in Paris. He was essentially self-taught, though he attended Villa Thiole, an art school in Nice. He joined the French army in 1961 but continued to produce paintings and photos, as the military allowed him to have a studio. After his service, he returned to Nice, and in 1963 became involved with artists of the French New Realist movement, notably Arman. Venet moved to New York in 1966 and lived in Arman's studio until he took up residence in the Chelsea Hotel. His work of this period is conceptual and includes pieces done on magnetic tape, which cannot be viewed.

Venet returned to Europe in 1972, but he was back in New York by '76. In the interim, his work had changed to include a body of paintings and drawings of geometric shapes that, though more concrete, still had a lot of conceptual aspects. By 1979, he was doing sculptures depicting those shapes, including the first of his "Indeterminate Lines" series. (The earlier pieces in the series were created in wood, the later ones in steel.) In the '80s, his steel sculptures, related both to expressionism and minimalism, were being built around the world. Since then, his art career has flourished, and he's never been more successful than in the last few years.

The Venets at Robischon provide a good introduction to the artist's recent interests. The large steel floor piece, "219° Arc x 5," is the first one you see, and it literally weighs a ton. The first number in the title refers to the degree of arc, the last to the number of elements involved. Visually, the work is light and seems to soar, even though it's not very tall. The rusted patina is also eye-catching.

In the next space are a group of smaller sculptures, all of which are also based on the arc shape and expressed in various degrees of angle. These are all done in steel finished in a rich, black patina except for one, which is made of aluminum. The black shapes set against their white display stands makes them look like three-dimensional drawings, an impression that is enhanced by the actual Venet drawings and prints that fill out the show.

Bernar Venet is gorgeous, definitely one of the best offerings so far this year. There's only one strange thing: The show is up in June, during the art season's three-month hiatus. Then again, we've got a new Daniel Libeskind-designed wing at the Denver Art Museum set to open in October, so all the old rules must be out. For the rest of the summer, we're going to be treated to fall-quality shows everywhere, an indication of what's to come when fall actually gets here.

Chuck Parson, one of the region's top sculptors, is another artist whose work you'd expect to see in a fall slot, but his solo, Balanced Dissolution, is on right now at Artyard. Like Bernar Venet, Parson is an artist who does non-objective metal sculptures with deep roots in conceptual art, though he's more of a constructivist than a minimalist. And he's never expressionistic, except in theory: He likens the bolts that hold his sculptures together to the emotions that connect people.

In the early '70s, Parson moved to Colorado from Michigan, where he was teaching. He was already a mature artist, with a BFA from the respected Kansas City Art Institute and a freshly inked MFA from the legendary Cranbrook Academy. He emerged in the '70s as a key player in town, showing an early interest in then-new mediums such as video, performance and installation. Since the '80s, Parson has been chiefly interested in creating freestanding sculptures that have an industrial aesthetic, which comes from the heavy-duty materials he uses and the complicated machine-like compositions he prefers. The dialogue between the world, represented by the materials, and the person, represented by Parson himself, is the key underpinning of his work.  

For Balanced Dissolution, Parson created an astounding 45 works, including monumental sculptures, wall constructions and what he calls "dimensional drawings," in which drawings are enhanced with sheets of plastic and other materials. There's enough work to fill several galleries, and Artyard is exhibiting it in two parts, with an indoor section and a grander outdoor one.

In the small indoor space, Parson has installed two large sculptures surrounded by his dimensional drawings, giving the humble little room a swank atmosphere. Though the dimensional drawings are interesting and go a long way in setting the mood for this part of the exhibit, the two mostly black sculptures dominate the space. They are signature Parson, though their cylindrical shafts break with Parson's typical juxtaposition of flat planes in rigidly horizontal and vertical arrangements. The continuous shape of the cylinder throws a curveball, so to speak, at his tried-and-true formula. These sculptures, like all of the others in the show, are untitled.

The main part of the exhibit is outdoors, and while the works are all impressive, they've been poorly installed. The sculptures are arrayed around the edges so that it's hard to walk around them, and the largest is obscured because it's tucked under a tree. In this piece, there's a planar base on which an inverted steel triangle is mounted. A flat plane is placed on the triangle in the manner of a tabletop, and in the center is a phallic construction of cylindrical elements nestled within one another. These cylinders thrust into the air -- which here means into the tree branches.

Among the other outside works is one that looks like a gate, or some kind of celestial cabinet or tabernacle. A metal frame surrounding a suspended vertical element with a ladder-like construction sits in a skeletal armature serving as a base. As much as any, this piece brought to mind the idea that there's some kind of religious content to these works. Several other recent Parson sculptures also evoke the idea of ceremonial or sacred spaces, with a majority of them looking like altars.

Parson is a workaholic, and despite the limited facilities at Artyard, he produced enough stuff not only to fill it to overflowing, but to take over a small museum or art center. Balanced Dissolution has a longer-than-usual run, with nearly six weeks left before it closes, so there's plenty of time for Artyard to shift around some of those sculptures, especially the one that's hidden by the tree. Either that or do some pruning.

The 3-D mania continues up in Golden, where Foothills Art Center is hosting the North American Sculpture Exhibition 2006, the umpteenth edition of its important annual offering. This year, the work of more than forty contemporary artists is included.

The word on the street about the NASE that it's "the worst show ever!" (Tip of the hat to the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy.) But people exaggerate -- and they really need to get out more: This isn't even one of the worst shows this year. But it isn't very good, either.

Before I get into what's wrong with it, I want to mention that Foothills curator Michael Chavez did an admirable job blocking it, making a marvelous recovery from the problems he had with the ceramics in Colorado Clay. This time, all the rooms look pretty good. Speaking of Colorado Clay, that show was a disappointment compared to its predecessors, and the same holds true for the NASE. However, I think the failure in both cases falls at the feet of the jurors.

For the past several years, celebrity artists have been making the picks for the NASE, and the roster of those who've served is pretty impressive, including the likes of Jess Moroles, Manuel Neri, Allison Saar and Donald Lipski. Big names with national reputations. This year a lesser-known artist, who previously had a career as a museum curator and director, called the shots. This juror, George Neubert, hails from that hotbed of cutting-edge culture, Nebraska. Maybe the more conservative atmosphere of that state explains the inclusion of wildlife art in the show, if you can image it. Neubert's substandard performance as a juror does nothing to contradict that old joke about I-80 being the best thing to come out of the Cornhusker State.

Okay, I've had my fun at the expense of Neubert (and Nebraska), so now I need to reluctantly admit that there are things in the NASE that warrant being mentioned. Though fairly traditional, the simplified female torso carved from Italian alabaster by Michael Reardon is undeniably beautiful. More convincingly contemporary is John Maul's "Crown #2," a constructivist crown of thorns made of aluminum painted with encaustic. A sophisticated wall-mounted piece, "Interactive Eyes," by Steven Pierce, includes motion sensors, lights, Plexiglas and photos. Also worth checking out are pieces by Marc Berghaus, Michael Clapper and Philip Maior.  

Next year, there are going to be some changes. Though it's been an annual since it started in the 1970s, the NASE is being turned into a biennial after the 2007 effort. It will alternate with Colorado Clay, which is also going from an annual to a biennial and will next appear in 2008. Here's my advice for next year's NASE and, come to think of it, Colorado Clay: Find jurors who know what they're doing.

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