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Men at Work

Detail of "Heads," by Bryan Andrews, wood.
Collin Parson

Colorado has never been much of a place for sculpture; the three-dimensional medium has always come in a distant second behind painting in the state's art history. Anyone interested in the art scene could readily reel off a long list of interesting painters -- scores of them, in fact -- but they might be stumped if asked to name ten noteworthy local sculptors. I have no idea why this is the case, just that it is.

Countering this century-old situation were a number of young Denver sculptors who emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Most of these artists were independent and didn't even know one another, so there was no real school or movement happening. Even those few who had personal connections didn't, for the most part, have any aesthetic ones.

Among this group of young sculptors are Bryan Andrews and Joe Riché, good friends and studio mates whose respective work has nothing in common. Andrews refers to primitive art and early modernism in wooden sculptures; Riché creates environments in which he installs mechanized sculptures made of steel. Primitive versus mechanical, wood versus steel, stillness versus movement. See what I mean? Their sensibilities are all but antithetical to one another.

In the center's entry space and in two other galleries is Auditioning Gods, featuring very recent pieces by Andrews. In the soaring atrium and in another gallery is Riché's the good times are killing me. Finally, in two small galleries at the back is a display devoted to the Motoman Project, a performance troupe founded by Riché and others, of which Andrews is a member.

"I've been looking at these guys for years," says Jerry Gilmore, curator and director of the exhibition program at the Arvada Center, who organized the shows. He came to know Riché and Andrews when they helped erect the monumental Charles Parson show a couple of seasons ago.

Andrews and Riché both created bodies of new works especially for these shows, and both say that these solos are the most important exhibitions either of them has ever done. They're right about that: The spare arrangement of the objects in the shows is masterful, even in the cavernous Lower Galleries, which can sometimes seem too big.

The first thing on display when visitors enter the Lower Galleries is Andrews's work. Inside, the lights are dim, and directed spots exaggerate the minimal details of the Andrews sculptures, lending them a dramatic quality and giving the space a temple-like aura. This sacred mood is no accident: Andrews has long been interested in exploring spirituality through the creation of devotional objects related to a pseudo-religion he developed. He handles this odd task in both a deadly serious way and with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. These fantasy objects of veneration have animistic roots and relate to primitive belief systems found around the world, from Oceania to Scandinavia. The show's title, Auditioning Gods, gives away the theme and is meant to refer to the quest for moral guidance that so many are on now.

One of the objects Andrews has developed is what he calls a "fetem" -- a conjunction of the words 'fetish' and 'totem' -- and like everything else about the ersatz faith, the word is something the artist simply made up. Most of the pieces in Auditioning Gods may be called fetems, but they are markedly different from his previous efforts. They are much less abstract -- though still quite abstracted -- and more literally representational than before. They are constructed, not carved. And Andrews dropped his signature blue color, leaving all the new pieces in the subtle natural colors of the wood.

Andrews's use of a particular shade of blue was steeped in meaning for him, because it was the color of his deceased grandfather's eyes and also his own. The blue, used very sparingly, not only served to accent the mostly brown pieces, but also created a narrative component. The sculptures in Auditioning Gods are very good as they are, but I do miss that gorgeous blue and hope that he'll bring it back in the future.

On the right side of the gallery are "Heads," four monumental heads carved from found beams. They are somewhat reminiscent of Easter Island heads, but they're so loose that they also refer to Brancusi's completely abstract carvings of the early twentieth century. In front is "Earth Beasts," a pair of four-legged animals in silhouette that reference African art. Behind and to the left is "Fetem," a totemic depiction of a moose that is hands-down the best piece in the show and the one closest to his classic approach. (Even though he gave only the moose sculpture the official fetem designation, Andrews says that all of the three-dimensional pieces in the show are fetems.)

Crossing diagonally through the Lower Galleries, visitors will come upon the next two spaces devoted to Auditioning Gods. In the first are painted wooden panels called "City Goblins." These drawings, in two different sizes, lay out some of the iconography of Andrews's imaginary religion. Lyrical and childlike simple line drawings convey skulls, antlers, trees, leaves and mouths. A lot of the show has a Scandinavian slant, but none more so than these decorative panels.

In the space beyond are a dozen vertical piles called "Effigies" and, like the "City Goblins," they are more about the development of an iconography. Each of the "Effigies" has a wooden base with a dowel on top that rises to eye level. Mounted on the dowel is a wooden construction meant to convey a number of familiar things, including a crown, a fish, the moon, a tree and so on. Since the representational elements of the "Effigies" are constructed, they have voids inside that suggest tabernacles or arks -- yet another liturgical reference.

Speaking of liturgy, I wonder if Andrews conducts rituals as part of his personal religion. He once told me that he had thought about carrying out ceremonies with his pieces. It would seem like the logical next step.

Andrews's friend Riché is much more reality-based in his typically kinetic work. The show's title, the good times are killing me, refers to his everyday life as a practicing artist and as the owner of an art-related business in which he fabricates decorative objects. Being an artist is what he wanted to do all his life, and now he's doing it. Hence, it's the good times. But the struggles, especially the financial ones, are so great that living out his dreams is killing him -- figuratively speaking, anyway.

In the gallery to the left of the entry is "Riché's Homage to Ganson's Homage to Tinguely's Homage to Duchamp," which looks like a memorial and essentially fills the entire room. On the wall behind the three-dimensional elements are two patinated square metal panels. In front is an assemblage of metal hanging by heavy chains from the ceiling. At the top, hanging parallel to the floor, is a steel beam with a bullhorn speaker at each end. Hanging below are arching metal pipes that touch the ground, below which are a tangle of cords. In front and on either side are found-metal contraptions finished in a deep, earthy red. When activated by a foot pedal, the elements vibrate, shifting around in space. "Homage" is extremely elegant, and although the movement adds a lighthearted aspect to it, the piece is still predominantly somber.

That's certainly not the case with the other large installation by Riché, a three-parter called "It was Just One of Those Days," which is in the airy atrium gallery. The three elements -- "Big Pig," "Small Pig" and "Double Pig" -- are made of steel beams to which ready-made concrete pigs have been attached. The imagery has to do with the expression "When pigs fly," used to describe unlikely events. For years, Riché has said to himself that he'd get his work in a museum when pigs fly. Well, the Arvada Center is not a museum, but it's close enough, so he was inspired to do flying pigs. But since the contraptions move to simulate flying, they presented a sure hazard to viewers if they were able to get too close. The problem was solved by erecting a fence around the atrium gallery that prevents people from entering but still allows a view of the flying pigs. The action of the three pieces is distinct and is activated by a computer program being played on a laptop in a corner of the room.

In addition to the Andrews and Riché features is a presentation about the Motoman Project, a performance group that uses robotics and explosives to create spectacles. The display includes posters, digital photos of performances by the group, a video loop and two robotic arms, which are branded with the Motoman logo, explaining how the troupe got its name.

When I first heard about the pairing of Andrews with Riché last spring, the idea struck me as odd, because I knew what to expect from each of them. I was afraid that their differing styles would look bad in association with each other, that Andrews would come off too light and Riché too heavy. But I was pleasantly surprised. True, there are all those key differences between them, but there is one essential unifying element: their naturalistic palettes. Since wood and rusted metal are both brown, from a certain perspective the pieces by both artists look similar and thus appear to be compatible, even if they're not. Superficial as it may be, this connection by color is enough to make the pairing of Andrews and Riché work extremely well.