Long-Term Commitments

Russell Beardsley emerged on the Denver art scene while still a student. The first shows of his conceptual metal sculptures were presented to both critical and popular acclaim in 1993, a year before he earned his BFA from the University of Colorado at Denver. Back then, his pieces most often took the form of handmade metal books with lead leaves; later he worked in a kind of constructivism, creating linear abstract sculptures, typically wall-hung, of lead, steel and wire.

Then in 1995, Beardsley began the series that would occupy his creative life for the next three years: the "Absence" boxes. Some of these steel pieces were large and freestanding, resembling water tanks; others were small, wall-mounted amorphous forms. The "Absence" boxes were intended as cenotaphs for Beardsley's older brother, who'd died of AIDS, but they also explored the impact of that death on Beardsley and the rest of his family. In all of the "Absence" boxes and other related pieces in the series, the inside of the individual sculptures, glimpsed through peepholes, becomes a visual effect as important as each work's outward appearance.

With his latest show, Seeds, now on display at Artyard, Beardsley reveals that his work has undergone a radical shift. Although he's already been all over the stylistic map during the half-dozen years he's exhibited around town--the lead books, the constructivist sculpture, the conceptual "Absence" boxes--never before has Beardsley integrated realistic figural elements into his sculptures. Even in those rare instances where he incorporated found objects, such as a coffee cup, that retained recognizable features, his work was exclusively abstract.

The style may be new, but in Seeds, as in the "Absence" series, Beardsley is looking at some of his closest relationships. The first piece in the Artyard show is the highly autobiographical "July 26, 1995," a lead, steel, bronze and mahogany sculpture that suggests the form of a rocking horse. "I was reminiscing about my childhood, so the piece is playful," says Beardsley. On a wide and flexible curving sheet of lead, he's set two thick mahogany boards facing each other. Mounted on the boards, parallel to the ground, are two cast-bronze arms that look as though they're about to grasp each other in a hearty handshake--but they're not. One arm has been cast using Beardsley's right arm as the model; the other, the right arm of his younger brother. The date in the title--July 26, 1995--is the day of his older brother's death, which created a rift with his younger brother. "That's why the hands never meet," explains Beardsley. "But we are connected by flesh and blood, and we've begun to resolve our differences."

"Seeds," an impressive installation that lends its name to the entire show, also takes on the topic of Beardsley's life. A narrow room has been lined by a score or so of paired arms, all cast in bronze from life, modeled after the real arms of Beardsley's friends and family members. The arms, outstretched with palms up, suggest the pose people take when they hold Beardsley's infant son. "All the people I used have helped with the baby," he says. The "Seeds" of the title, actual flax seeds chosen for their reddish-brown color, have been placed in the palms of the hands and spill out over the floor.

Over the years, Beardsley's sculptures have been shown at a number of the city's commercial galleries, most notably the Mackey Gallery, where he got his first big break. Beardsley's also had success in the prestigious arena of public institutions, including the Arvada Center, the Emmanuel Gallery and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Seeds is his third solo turn at Artyard, as well as the gallery's only exhibit this spring. "I don't have much planned for the summer," adds Peggy Mangold, director of the decades-old gallery, "but then it's going to get very busy." In the meantime, though, Beardsley's work provides plenty of food for thought.

From Artyard's spot on South Pearl, it's a quick trip to the William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, where Two Sculptors closes this weekend. And the connection between Beardsley and one of those sculptors, Lawrence Argent, is even more direct. Like Beardsley, Argent uses identifiable casts and focuses on autobiographical subject matter. But unlike the up-and-coming Beardsley, Argent is an old hand in the art world.

The English-born Argent was raised in Australia and came to Denver in 1994 to take over the sculpture department at the University of Denver. Almost immediately, he was hailed as one of the region's greatest talents in realms as varied as sculpture and painting, but he's best known as an installation artist. His 1995 ...of silent touching, at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and his Voyages installation at the Arvada Center the following year rank among the best art shows of the 1990s.

The Havu exhibit includes a couple of sculptures from these earlier outings, as well as paintings all dating back to the mid-'90s. Most of the three-dimensional Argents here, though, are fresh from the studio within the past few months. Like Beardsley's installation, these latest pieces deal with the recent birth of the artist's child. But this topical similarity is only a superficial connection, since Argent relates to the birth of his child from a science-based conceptual standpoint, whereas Beardsley expresses the same event psychologically.

The difference is clear in Argent's wall-hung "It's a Boy" installation, made with a pair of iron bathroom sinks and butterflies encased in polyester resin, just one of the unlikely materials in his pieces (another is rubber). The sinks--one pink, one seafoam green--are installed vertically in the wall; hanging from metal brackets mounted through the faucet holes are cast-resin shapes that were formed in the bowls of the sinks. The pink one is essentially closed, the resin in front murky. But the green sink is open, its light-blue resin transparent. It's a boy!

In "Spoon Fed," another installation devoted to infants, a creamy Hydrocal cube, one side of it cast in the form of a child's mouth, is placed on a green-painted antique miniature chair. A long-handled lavatory shovel from the turn of the century, mounted on a stand, is aimed right at the mouth. Considering the original function of the shovel, which was used to clean out latrines, the implications are obvious. But the imagery of "Spoon Fed" is subtle compared with the ceiling-mounted "Cojones," a pair of giant red brushes that have been carved into solid ovals. The brushes are from street sweepers, and Argent reports he had trouble finding something strong enough to carve the industrial-strength bristles. "Cojones" dominates the Argent section of Two Sculptors and is the show's real standout.

The exhibit continues upstairs, where a small selection of wall-mounted objects by Arizona-based Sarah Obrecht suggests boughs of dried fruits and vegetables. These pieces mostly follow the same format: a copper bracket is mounted to the wall, and from it hangs a cluster of copper wire, accented with naturalistic forms made of painted polymer clay. The intimately scaled, densely detailed sculptures provide a clear counterpoint to Argent's heroic assaults on floor, wall and ceiling.

Gallery director Bill Havu has paired Two Sculptors with an in-depth display of fifteen years' worth of Luis Eades paintings, which also closes this weekend. Eades, a CU professor emeritus, has been a fixture on the Colorado art scene for nearly forty years. The paintings in Luis Eades represent his signature style of the 1980s and '90s, a meticulous magic realism in which carefully rendered subjects are juxtaposed in unlikely combinations. In "A Wall in Greece," an oil on canvas from 1997, a man riding a huge trout flies by a shack decorated with a Grecian bas-relief of a horse and rider. The bas-relief shows up again in "Sheila's Hut," a 1998 oil on canvas. This time the stone tablet is surrounded by rusting corrugated metal and paired with a brightly plumed tropical bird.

The connections stretch to the Robischon Gallery in LoDo, where a longtime colleague of Eades's, CU professor and painter Jerry Kunkel, has his own show. Although Kunkel's been included in Robischon group outings for over twenty years, Jerry Kunkel is his first solo. Like Eades, Kunkel delves into realist painting--but his approach in these Baroque-style pieces from 1995 and '96 is far less traditional. Kunkel lines up disparate, expressively painted images horizontally; the specific arrangement of the individual panels suggests, but does not explicate, the implicit narratives of the pictures. It's obvious that Kunkel doesn't want us to fully understand some of these paintings, since he crops out key elements such as heads and even torsos. In "Redefining Redemption," an oil on four panels, he covers parts of featured figures with painted drapery carried out in red and brown, which links the panels together. The heavy draperies, the red color and the figure of the man leaning on the lectern recalls Catholic religious art, as does the triptych shape in the oil on panel "Everyday Noise: Artifice." In that piece, the middle panel is rectangular and the flanking panels are smaller squares; as a result, the central panel hangs below the sides like an altarpiece.

Robischon is also hosting another one-artist show, Jack Balas, featuring paintings and sculptures of the Berthoud-based Balas. The large oil and enamel paintings are done on unstretched but stitched canvas and freely hang on the walls like banners or flags. The style is reminiscent of pop art, particularly the work of Robert Rauschenberg, since Balas uses photo transfers. In "The Judgement of Paris," photo-based images of a clock face, a slide trade and a group of traditional sculptures have been partly painted out with a thin blue wash applied heavily in places. Though similar in technique, "Telescope" and "Notebook for the Eclipse" offer slight stylistic variations. Both are more consciously geometric, more like wall maps than banners.

Unexpected from Balas, who is primarily known as a painter, are three captivating sculptures that take the form of furniture. In "Sheet Rock (chair)," he creates his own version of an overstuffed living-room chair--but the soft upholstery has been replaced by cut-up pieces of Sheetrock. The nearby "Indian Nation (chair)" is made from scrap lumber with the remains of white paint visible on the boards; each board has been labeled with a plastic tag inscribed with the name of an Indian tribe. "Oberdick House (chaise)," a chaise made of salvaged white-painted clapboard, completes the group.

Considered together, this quintet of shows at a trio of galleries offers an impressive cross-section of Colorado's contemporary art scene, from old-timers like Kunkel to relative newcomers such as Beardsley; it makes you eager to see who will join the ranks next.

Seeds, extended through May 31 at Artyard, 1251 South Pearl Street, 303-777-3219.

Two Sculptors and Luis Eades, both through April 18 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.

Jerry Kunkel and Jack Balas, through April 24 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788.


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