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Time Machines

"Praise," sculpture of wood and brass, by Carley Warren.

Until last year, Artyard, the grand dame of the local sculpture world, was the place to see rotating exhibits of monumental outdoor pieces by a number of noteworthy sculptors. They were displayed in a large lot on South Pearl Street, just a few doors down from the gallery proper. But then Artyard lost the lease on its, well, yard.

Undaunted, Artyard director Peggy Mangold (who is the wife of legendary Denver sculptor Bob Mangold, whose studio is also on the premises) has responded by focusing on indoor exhibits in the small informal gallery accessed through a hatch-like opening in the large overhead door. It is in this space that the elegant and provocative About Time: Recent Work by Carley Warren has been installed.

Using organic materials and forms, Warren often addresses social issues, including feminism. This is appropriate because her life has encompassed a personal struggle against sexism. The show is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by Denver Art Museum associate curator Nancy Tieken. The catalogue was paid for by the Florsheim Fund, a Florida foundation that gives grants to artists over sixty.

Warren qualifies: She was born in 1931. Growing up on a farm in Maine, Warren felt blocked in by her family's conservative values. "I didn't even know if I would be able to go to college," she says. "My father felt 'What's the sense of educating a girl?'" Fortunately, her mother insisted, and Warren enrolled in Maine's Westbrook College in 1949. But in college, as in her high school, there were no art classes offered. It's easy to forget today that in the 1940s and '50s, there was little art training outside highly specialized art schools. So Warren pursued a degree in retailing. But her first love was art, which she had "been diddling around with since I was a kid," she says. "So I started taking night classes."

In 1953, Warren left Maine and moved to Colorado to ski. And she continued to take night art classes, both at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School and at the University of Denver, where she studied with Roger Kotoske. In the late '60s, after a decade of evening classes, she decided to really pursue her art career. "I asked myself, are you serious?" says Warren, who at that time had a husband (she has since divorced) and a child. "If I was serious, I needed to get my degree." She wound up at Metropolitan State College of Denver, then a brand-new institution, and earned her bachelor's degree in 1975. Immediately thereafter, she set up a studio, which she has maintained in various locations ever since.

Warren began by making sculptures with transparent acrylic plastic in the 1970s and early '80s. This work was well received, and she displayed and sold pieces through the Sebastian-Moore Gallery, then the city's premier gallery. But in 1983, she came to a crossroads. "I had received a grant from the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute," she recalls. "It was a year-long grant, and I was right in the middle of it." Warren used the money to look into devising a way to dye the plastic. "I finally got in touch with a man who had been working with the material. He told me that dying the plastic was like dying stainless steel. At that moment, I stopped working with plastic and started working with wood."

Wood was a natural choice for her. The polishing, cutting and finishing tools and the other materials needed to create sculptures in wood were the same ones she already had for the making of her plastic pieces.

Since then, Warren has worked exclusively with wood, and it is these sculptures that have brought her fame: Her wooden sculptures have been on view in the area since the late '80s, in exhibits at the region's leading venues. In 1991, she was the subject of a popular Close Range show at the DAM.

But wood had another appeal for Warren at the time: she had become fascinated with traditional Japanese wood joinery. "I was interested, but I knew that in no way was I going to emulate those joints -- mine are parodies or exaggerations of them," she says modestly. Some of her pieces in the Artyard show sport these Japanese-style joints, and most of her work here, with or without this feature, has a Japanese feel in terms of color and form.

As we enter the gallery, the first thing that comes into view is "About Time," a small-scale installation. The piece is made of more than a score of basket-like elements in various sizes arranged on the floor and up the wall. These elements were constructed with crocheted, tightly twisted paper twine that is so rigid it stands up without armatures. The individual parts of the sculpture are reminiscent of Japanese fishnet traps. (The piece was also the inspiration for the show's title, as the passage of time is its leitmotif. Incidentally, the exhibit opened on January 19, Warren's seventieth birthday.)

Warren has used crochet since the mid 1970s, and she sees its homespun style as having a feminine content and an intimate relationship to women over the centuries. But there is a limitation to crochet -- it's incredibly time-consuming. "I worked on this piece, off and on, for nine months," Warren says, "and I thought: It's about time to finish it. And so I titled it 'About Time.'"

Although the use of crochet here is a covert reference to the struggle for women's equality, a couple of Warren's pieces raise social issues more overtly.

In "Misogyny," Warren creates a miniature corner of a room, made of split cedar boards that are pierced by untrimmed pegs. Draped in the corner of the room is a crochet fragment done in black cotton yarn. It is held in the corner by dangerous looking -- and enormous -- metal nails. According to the artist, the fragment, which resembles a shawl, symbolizes women; the nails symbolize cruelty directed at them.

Animal rights is another of Warren's causes, as seen in "Trophy: No Animal Testing," a wall-hung sculpture. This is Warren's attempt to convey an abstract version of an animal trophy. "Stuffed animal heads are called trophies," she explains. "People hang them up because they are very proud of overcoming animals -- though it's not a fair match."

Most of the other sculptures are not so clearly topical and instead seem to refer to the natural environment, particularly plants.

"Latent and Manifest" uses vegetal imagery, and it picks up the Japanese mood again. For this floor piece, Warren made three crates out of unfinished split-cedar boards joined by untrimmed and unfinished pegs. The crate forms are open at the top, and inside she has created abstract vegetal compositions out of the same brown paper twine used for "About Time" and the black cotton yarn used in "Misogyny." The boxes represent a progression: In the one on the left is the black yarn; in the middle one, the brown twine appears to shoot out of the yarn; and in the box on the right, the brown twine seems to have overwhelmed the yarn. The piece represents a seed becoming a plant, Warren says.

Plant imagery is also used in "Prose and Poetry," a sculpture made of maple, walnut and brass (and the only piece in the show that has been exhibited before). A series of cut and rejoined walnut dowels that suggest roots form the sculpture's legs. A thick, flat, chip-carved piece of maple, placed horizontally at the top of the dowels, stands in for the earth. Above, a trio of tendril-like forms made of walnut rise in a handsome cluster. The finials are like fiddleheads, done in one of Warren's parodies of Japanese joinery. After cutting and connecting the dowels at sometimes very severe angles, Warren reinforces the joints with brass pegs. The curves she gets are about as tight as is physically possible, given the materials and methods she uses.

The same effect, which really looks like fern heads, is used for the tabletop-sized "Praise," which has a monumental scale despite its actual small size.

The show proves that, in spite of the fact that Artyard lost its outdoor space, it is still carrying important artists. This will continue -- as a pair of promising and anticipated solos are set to open this spring. The first focuses on Susan Meyer Fenton and the second on Bryan Andrews. The Warren exhibit will remain on display through the middle of March.


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