It's a Guy Thing

"Giant's Leg," found, carved and painted wood.

Flying way below the region's art radar right now -- it hasn't even appeared in most of the city's gallery listings -- is Fetem, a thematically linked exhibit of sculptures by Bryan Andrews, a twenty-something artist who has been exhibiting locally for the last few years. The show is on display at Artyard.

Andrews was born in 1973 in Springfield, Missouri, which is nestled in the Ozark Mountains in the southeastern part of that state. Andrews remembers it as being culturally isolated. "When I was a kid, I never saw any real art. All I saw was the kind of things people made as hobbies and sold by the road, like little wood carvings of animals and people."

After graduating high school in 1992, he enrolled in college in Missouri but dropped out almost immediately. "I was taking art classes, but it was at a big state institution, and so -- you know -- art was at the bottom of the barrel," he recalls. "Then a friend of mine said he was coming out to Denver, and I said, 'I'm coming with you.'"

When he got here, Andrews enrolled in the industrial-design program at the Colorado Institute of Art (now the Art Institute of Colorado). "Industrial design was interesting to me, but it didn't fit me," he says. "I needed to find something better suited to my creativity, so I transferred over to RMCAD (the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design) and switched to a fine-art major."

At RMCAD, from which he graduated in 1997 and where he still works as the lab coordinator in the sculpture department, Andrews studied with painter Clark Richert and sculptor Chuck Parson. Although Richert and Parson exposed the self-described "hillbilly" to the most sophisticated ideas in contemporary art, it's important to note that Andrews's work looks nothing like that of either of his mentors. No, Andrews's style is completely his own. He has taken ideas from a variety of sources, however, which is why many of the pieces in Fetem recall both those roadside wood carvings of Andrews's youth and, at the same time, refer to the minimalism of Richert and Parson.

Truth be told, Fetem has its flaws. But if that were all there was to it, why even discuss it? Because there's something more than the uneven quality of many of the pieces: It's that Andrews, unlike many of his peers, is capable of creating objects of genuine beauty. And from my point of view, that's good enough.

Believe it or not, to some people in the contemporary art world, beauty is no virtue, and work of the kind that Andrews does has been labeled by them as reactionary, as well as Eurocentric and reflective of a male-dominated view of art. I believe, though, a successful work of art is one that is visually interesting. And surely beauty is one of the most interesting visual qualities that an object can possess.

Andrews's commitment to beauty is palpable even in the gorgeous card he mailed out to announce the show. On a shiny black field, he placed a blue circle with the word "Fetem" in cursive script below. The companion business card includes a color reproduction of a massive tree trunk on one side and that blue circle on the other.

The blue circle has a great deal of meaning for Andrews. It's a key part of an elaborate iconography he's cooked up in which simple abstract shapes are given narrative or even spiritual meanings. For Andrews, the blue circle represents his soul. It's easy to understand how he came up with the idea of using a blue circle to stand in for his soul. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and Andrews's eyes happen to be the same color blue as the circles. Come to think of it, they're the same shape, too.

And blue circles are the first things visitors see as they approach Artyard. Outside, arrayed along a concrete driveway, is the wonderful "Glimpses of the Journey," a five-part sculptural group. All five of the elements are adorned with -- you guessed it -- the signature blue circles.

"Glimpses," which premiered a few months ago in a show at Raven's Nest, is clearly Andrews's greatest accomplishment to date. In a way, the rest of the show is based on it. According to Andrews, the piece is meant to chart the artist's progress through life thus far. Interestingly, Andrews hasn't lined up the elements in a linear progression in terms of their size, as we'd expect considering the topic, but rather in a way meant to reflect biographic details of his life that are unknown to the viewer. For example, the final element is the tallest, but the second to the last is one of the smallest. Andrews says the juxtaposition reflects his heartache, followed by his recovery, from a failed romance about a year ago.  

When I first saw "Glimpses" at Raven's Nest, I wrote in a review that the imagery used for the piece was phallic. The forms Andrews employs are blunt-topped cylindrical shafts. Andrews was downright furious at me for making this observation -- to the point of calling me up to complain about it in no uncertain terms.

For Andrews, the shapes I'd described as phallic were meant to represent conventionalized and simplified views of the human figure and were not meant to project any X-rated references. His strident protests notwithstanding, the shapes are undeniably phallic. And Andrews should realize that this is not a bad thing -- especially considering that artists have been having great success using phallic imagery in their work for thousands of years.

Phallic or not, the five elements in "Glimpses" are essentially the same: Each has a cylindrical concrete base in which a wooden shaft has been mounted vertically in the center. The wooden shafts are made from fragments of a found telephone pole that Andrews has cut up and lightly carved. The telephone-pole segments have been deeply etched by weather, and the resultant surfaces, both in texture and color, are highly decorative without any help from Andrews.

The largest element has, in addition to the blue circle, a blue line carved into it that forms another circle. This combination of circle and line also appears on a trio of tattoos on the artist's left forearm. Andrews says the tattoos represent his first three solo shows presented in three different mediums. Linking his art to his body in such a direct and visceral way reveals how intensely personal Andrews's aesthetic intentions are.

The five elements in "Glimpses" are the perfect setup for the rest of the show, installed inside the small Artyard gallery space, because Fetem concerns what Andrews calls "the five phases of man." But he doesn't mean the traditional five phases: infancy, childhood, adolescence, maturity and old age. Instead he translates the five phases into four body parts plus the spirit. "They're the head, torso, legs, arms and soul," he says.

The way Andrews has changed the expected meaning of the five phases indicates a standard feature of his work and the ideas that lie behind it. He researches topics in folklore and mythology and then makes up his own version, which is intended to express the same universal truths seen in the originals. He came to the idea of making up myths as a solution to a problem. "I used to do pieces based on African art and Native American art, but then someone accused me of plagiarism because I wasn't African or Native American -- it wasn't my heritage," he says. "I didn't mean any disrespect by it, but it always really bothered me after that, so I eventually decided to create my own mythology, my own folklore."

Even the exhibit's title, Fetem, is made up. It's a contraction of totem and fetish and is clearly more appealing than the obvious alternative, totish. "A fetish is a magical item that takes its magic from the thing it depicts," explains Andrews, "and it's small and meant to be held in your hand. A totem is large and includes fetishes and ancestor representations. My pieces are neither one of those but are sort of both."

This combination is easy to see in the five pieces reflecting the five phases. Standing against the gallery's back wall is the dramatically lit "Have You Ever Seen the Heart of a Giant's Leg?" which looks like an abstracted totem with a fetish used as a finial. The piece is made from a found beam fragment that has been painted a stunning cobalt blue. This blue, the same shade Andrews uses for the blue circles, is seen on all of the five-phases pieces. Again, the color is meant to suggest Andrews himself, or, at the very least, his soul. On top of the blue shaft, Andrews has placed a small basswood carving of gathered cylinders. Though much smaller than the shaft, it's on the same monumental scale.

"Giant's Leg" is, of course, meant to symbolize the legs element of the five phases. It is sublime and is the most successfully resolved of the five pieces.

Two of the other pieces, "The Cobalt Throne" and "The Breath of Flight," are close to being great, and luckily for Andrews, in art, as in horseshoes, close does count. The two phases are also constructed from found beams forming vertical shafts, painted that exquisite cobalt blue in places, with unfinished basswood carvings on top. But these carvings are crude, unlike the perfect one used for "Giant's Leg," and they are too detailed -- thus the scale of both sculptures is seriously thrown off.  

The fourth of the five phases, "The War of the Flean III," which represents the soul, is in the middle of the floor. It is a low horizontal piece -- something like an altar -- on which Andrews has arranged four-by-four boards on one end, counterbalanced visually by a blue sphere sitting on a blue circle. Like "Giant's Leg," this piece is fabulous.

These first four sculptures all owe a debt to early modernist Constantin Brancusi -- not just in terms of that artist's simple representational sculpture, but especially in his robust bases in which the cantilever is employed.

The last of the five sculptures is the most literal and by far the least interesting. It also lacks the Brancusi-esque quality of the others, looking absurdly like a Viking menorah. "Five Paths" represents the head, and it features a simple cuneiform of Andrews's own invention and is therefore unintelligible unless it's explained. The different panels depict distinct aspects of the male personality, which are, according to Andrews, "the worker, the sinner, the trickster, the poet and the saint." By not using his signature blue, Andrews reveals that, for him, thinking and feeling are not connected.

In addition to the five-part "Glimpses" and the five-phases sculptures, Andrews has done one piece on life and another on death. Both look as though he's been thinking about those roadside carvings of his youth a little too much.

Problems and all, the show is quite worthwhile, and despite the lack of publicity, you should check it out.

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