Though I try not to use the term "cutting edge" since it likens the art world to a knife as opposed to the soft, puddle-like thing it actually is, I sometimes do it anyway. The reason is because the term so handily describes the virtually indescribable, art-wise.
Being on the cutting edge — or edges, as in the puddle analogy — is what binds together the pieces on view in the Lower Galleries at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. The installations and sculptures by five of the most interesting artists in the region come together in More Big Beautiful Things. The exhibit, which is about midway through its run, was put together by gallery director Jerry Gilmore.
We've all heard the old saw about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts; well, in this case, the parts are greater than the whole. Several of the works are superb, and even those that aren't are at least intriguing. But the show lacks a regular rhythm. The chief problem is that Gilmore chose five artists to occupy the set of six discretely defined spaces that make up the Lower Galleries. That meant that one artist got two spaces, throwing the display off balance. The situation is exacerbated because instead of being adjacent, the two spaces are far apart. Even worse, another artist's work bleeds into the spaces dedicated to two others, tilting things out of balance again.
Featured in the entry space is an installation by Boulder artist Chris Lavery, who is also the participant with the extra space, way in the back corner. Lavery is interested in setting up a dialogue with viewers as opposed to creating aesthetic objects.
The installation has cloud forms made of fluffy fibers resembling pillows; some are suspended, while others are held aloft on stands. These clouds partly surround a megaphone mounted on a wooden tower. The piece has the epic title of "the first participants and observers who stepped off the field, disembarked and closely associated land with entering without discovery." There's also a soundtrack playing a loop of poorly recorded, early-twentieth-century marching music. I really liked this piece, which in many ways resembles a fully fleshed-out cartoon done in objects instead of pencil.
The other Lavery, "pilgrimage owing to the influence of the sea," is in the back and shares the same materials and colors with the first installation. The two also have a conceptual relationship, since both have something to do with weather. It's easier to literalize "pilgrimage" because the meteorological engine that brings ocean moisture through clouds to the mountains where it falls as snow — as vaguely implied by the title — is clearly the metaphor Lavery is working with. The cloud forms are suspended over little pools of water. In the center of the piece is a video of two guys working a snow-making machine, and viewers can strap on headphones to hear the men shouting to one another.
The second Lavery should have been installed in the space that opens onto the entry, where his other piece is, but instead, Virginia Folkestad's "Migration" fills the room, and I guess I can't complain about that. I've long admired Folkestad's installations, both for their consistency and for her unbelievable attention to detail. Folkestad, who lives south of Denver, has written that this piece is about nature and the built environment together as part of ongoing natural processes. Standing in the room is the frame of a house. Suspended from the ceiling and coming off one of the gallery's walls are hundreds of pieces of paper folded into rectangles and held together by thousands of T-pins.
Considering the title, "Migration," and the way the separate pieces of paper are arranged in relation to each other, the construction suggests a flock of birds or insects. The linear mass of joined paper pieces pierce the open side of the house, but their numbers are diminished beyond it, reduced to a tight cluster mounted on the wall.
Folkestad writes that she wants viewers to interact with her piece — as with most installations, you literally enter it — and in that way read its message. And if I'm reading it correctly, it's about the damage humanity does to nature.
Also raising ecological issues, if only because of her material — recycled rubber tires — is Linda Foster Leonhard's "Fallen." For this piece, she's placed a pile of painted rubber shapes in the middle of the floor and partly surrounded it with vertical rubber forms hanging on the walls; they look like running drips of paint but are actually flayed bicycle tires. Leonhard, who lives in northern Colorado, specializes in odd and quirky installations made up of odd and quirky elements, and that aptly describes this one.
Leonhard is the artist whose work spills into the adjacent spaces. In the back gallery is "Laughing Tongues," a totem built of chunks of rubber with malleable tongue-like protrusions on either end, while in the atrium is "Cartoon Clouds," made of rubber and wire constructions attached to the wall. On the opposite side is "Collected and Unsettled," a stack of house shapes cast in black industrial rubber leaning against the wall.
I can see why Leonhard's pieces weren't exhibited all together: they're too heterogeneous even given the shared use of rubber. But their placement denies both Justin Beard in the back space and Emmett Culligan in the atrium of having those areas to themselves, which would have been better.
Beard, of Denver, is represented by two pieces. "Hidden," a constructivist composition of PVC pipe with a small video monitor at one end, is installed in a niche and is hard to see — which I guess is the point. "Bike Messenger" is made up of a bicycle with a megaphone built out of found objects (including, apparently, a bicycle) that's been painted black. The bicycle is on a stand facing a projection of a film. In it, a man in disguise (most likely Beard) rides the novel conveyance down an alley while delivering incoherent messages by shouting them through the megaphone.
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The last of the five artists is Emmett Culligan, also from Denver. Culligan is the odd man out, so to speak, in several ways. First, he's a sculptor rather than an installation artist. Second, he's decidedly not a postmodernist, as all the others are, but instead a neo-modernist, which could also be described as being post-postmodern. This is especially true of Culligan's interest in decorating his fairly simple forms with the mortar joints that cover two of them. And speaking of mortar joints, his materials are different from those of the other artists, who prefer the ephemeral and non-durable. Culligan works in stone and metal, the two most traditional materials in the history of sculpture.
The three wonderful sculptures here are all from his ongoing "Crew" series and are distinguished from one another by numbers. "Crew #1," in the center of the atrium, is a simple shape in white limestone blocks, reminiscent of the nude torso standing on a foot made of shiny galvanized steel. The shape of the galvanized foot is identical to that of the limestone and serves as a continuation of the piece. The sculpture rises from a roughly finished square steel base. "Crew #2" is similar in conception, but this time the form has been inverted, with the galvanized steel used to cap it off. "Crew #3" is very different and involves a shape that appears to be more mechanical than figural. Culligan has written in his artist's statement that these three pieces are the first of a larger group he began last year. It goes without saying that it would be interesting to see them all brought together when he's finished.
There are problems with More Big Beautiful Things, but there's also quite a bit to recommend, even if seeing the show requires a fairly long drive to the suburbs. But with a month to go before it closes, at least there's plenty of time left to get there.