Colorado's own Chuck Parson is surely one of the most prolific artists anywhere, as his activities of the last year illustrate. When he wasn't putting in long hours as head of the sculpture department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, he was feverishly working away in his Lakewood studio or on location across the country.
In the last twelve months, Parson created a pair of monumental and elaborate outdoor sculptures, one for the lakefront in Chicago, the other for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Both were site-specific, and both were constructed in place. And, as if that wasn't enough, he also completed the more than seventy pieces that are featured in no less than three shows being presented simultaneously this winter in Fort Collins and Loveland.
"My mother used to wake up every morning and practice the piano -- and then she made breakfast," he says. "I learned discipline and diligence from her. That's where I got my work ethic."
The three Parson exhibits, which all concern a single body of work called "The Vertical Garden," are distinguished by their subtitles. At the Only Contemporary Art Gallery in Fort Collins is Wall Constructions, Sculptures, Drawings; a few blocks away, at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, there's Installation, Sculptures, Wall Constructions; and opening this weekend at the Loveland Museum and Gallery is Dimensional Drawings.
Parson says "The Vertical Garden" is about "the individual in the Western landscape," and he labels his classic style "a new Western regionalism." But it's important to point out that there are hardly any literal references to the landscape, or to the figure, in his work, as there were in the old regionalism. Instead, Parson translates the figure into a series of related non-objective forms through the use of a rigid linear language. Or, as seen in a couple of the largest works, he accounts for the figure by making the viewer an essential element in each piece. People may literally enter Parson's world with these installations.
Parson's current work is a direct descendant of the famous industrial aesthetic that he developed more than 25 years ago, before moving to Colorado. Although he doesn't remember exactly when he came here -- it was sometime in late '73 or early '74 -- he was attracted to this region by the dramatic landscape. On a whim, he gave up a teaching job in Flint, Michigan, and came west. "I got a ten-speed bicycle, and I checked out the whole state. I rode all over," he says. He eventually settled in Elbert County, south of Denver.
At the time, Parson was already a mature artist, having worked as a painter since the age of thirteen. "As a kid, when my folks lived in Fort Pierce, Florida, I started taking art lessons from Albert E. Backus," he says.
A prominent traditional painter in the area, Backus conducted an informal art school in his studio, a converted nineteenth-century church. An unusual person considering the conservative atmosphere of Fort Pierce, Backus ran his school and studio like a salon, with poetry readings, plays, jam sessions and intellectual discussions. "He welcomed blacks and Seminole Indians, which was really outrageous in the racist South. And he was a homosexual, but for some reason, my parents didn't seem to mind. They respected the work I was doing under his instruction."
Soon Backus recognized that Parson's talents for drawing and painting were beyond those of the other students. "He came to me and looked at the landscape I was painting, and he said, 'Chuckie, here's the key to the back door, over there's the paint, in there are the canvas and stretchers' -- and he decided I didn't have to pay for lessons anymore. He taught me to stretch his canvases and frame his paintings as trade-out for the supplies I was using."
Backus was fairly successful commercially, producing decorative paintings for the art-shop trade up and down the East Coast, and he plugged Parson into this market. "At fifteen, I was selling a lot of landscapes and flower studies," says Parson. "Backus helped me a great deal when I was an emerging artist, and he made me promise him -- saying that it was my duty -- that when I grew up, I had to do the same thing. I promised I would." (He carries out this pledge as a teacher at RMCAD, where his assistant and most notable protegé, Bryan Andrews, is among the most interesting and original young talents on the scene today.)
In 1970, Parson earned a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, and in 1972, he received an MFA from Michigan's prestigious Cranbrook Academy. Although his preference now is for sculpture, he studied painting at both institutions. But he sees his taste for architectonic form as having originated at Cranbrook.
His first Denver show, which consisted of drawings and sculptures, was in 1974 at the Changing Scene Gallery, essentially the lobby of the Changing Scene Theater. Parson continued his relationship with the Changing Scene into the 1990s, and the place is referred to in "Vertical Garden": One piece is dedicated to the late Maxine Munt, who co-founded the now-closed institution with her husband, Al Brooks.
Since then, Parson has shown his work at galleries and museums all over Denver, including the Arvada Center, the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Museum of Outdoor Arts. For most of the 1990s, he has been represented by Denver's Artyard gallery.
Although it's too bad for those of us in town that his current shows are in the hinterlands, they are worth the trip. You'll want to start in Fort Collins at the Only Contemporary Art Gallery, which is located inside an architecture office called the Architects' Studio. (The firm underwrites the gallery's expenses. "It is a philanthropic operation," says Roz Spencer, OCA's director.)
Wall Constructions, Sculptures, Drawings includes more than two dozen pieces. Especially striking is the row of three closely related floor sculptures lined up near the entrance, with two more pieces displayed on either side of the front windows. The five pieces are all from the "Fragility of Vertical Space" series and are distinguished by numeric suffixes. Each has been constructed with ready-made materials and hardware, including sheets of steel, sheets of glass, nuts and bolts, and cast concrete blocks. They're very elegant.
Equally nice is "Monument to the Vertical Garden," which is made of cut-up I-beams joined by nuts and bolts. Sitting on a base outfitted with rubber wheels, the tremendously heavy piece can be moved easily.
Also strong are the many drawings and constructions that cover the walls. A couple of constructions feature taxicab-yellow plastic handles mounted inside and on Plexiglas shadow boxes. The handles are used to make a decorative motif across the front of the construction.
It's a short walk over to the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, where Installation, Sculptures, Wall Constructions is showing. Here, on the second floor, Parson has included only a handful of pieces. But there's a reason: Two of them are enormous, taking up more floor space than the entire show at OCA.
The first of these, at the bottom of the ramp, is titled "Crucifixion of the Individual Space." Using a combination of floor- and ceiling-mounted elements, Parson creates a ridged hieratic scheme reminiscent of an altar, an impression that is reinforced by the quasi-religious character of the title. At the back of the piece, partly obscured by hanging sheets of translucent (but not transparent) Plexiglas, is a traditional and fairly conventional drawing of a young woman held within a cruciform shape. Parson's college-age daughter modeled for the drawing. This representational image is a surprise coming from Parson, but he points out that he did realistic drawings and paintings for years.
The other large installation, "Vertical Moment," is a tour de force. Filling two-thirds of the large gallery, it is not just an installation, but a multisensual environment that includes both sights and sounds. It has the look of a high-tech device of some sort, and it appears slightly dangerous. Using six rows of eight upright steel posts painted white and set on flat metal bases, Parson has created a fence around the center of the piece. But it's a fence in fantasy only, because there are no horizontal members other than a piece of florescent yellow-green string that runs across the tops of the posts. In front of the entry to the piece, Parson has laid black foam carpet padding that squishes under your feet. On top of the padding are found metal grates that have been painted white. The viewer walks on the grates to get to the elevated center of the piece, below which Parson has placed a clear plastic baffle of the type used at the Boettcher Concert Hall. Above is a speaker connected to an amplifier that broadcasts the sounds of the viewers' movements back down to them.
The final phase of "Vertical Garden" is Dimensional Drawings, installed in the Foote Gallery on the lower level of the Loveland Museum and Gallery. The drawings here fall into several categories: presentation drawings representing various monumental sculptures Parson has done over the last decade; preparatory drawings; and working drawings that are likewise related to Parson's sculptures. Totally separate from these is a group of forty stand-alone drawings, as well as a handful of sketchbooks.
Parson has written that the distance between the three shows is part of his idea for "Vertical Garden," since the work is meant to convey space and refer to the landscape. Surely even he wouldn't suggest that the same could be said for the considerable distance between Denver and the two northern Colorado towns where you'll find these shows. You'll just have to make a day of it.
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