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Top of the heap: Sculptor Donald Lipski.
Top of the heap: Sculptor Donald Lipski.

Junkyard Dog

When you're on top of the heap in the world of found-object-assemblage art, it's quite possible you have actually seen everything. Consider sculptor Donald Lipski: When vacating his studio in an old movie theater in Brooklyn, he filled three tractor-trailers with stuff he'd packratted away since he began picking up detritus off New York City streets in the late 1970s. "I haven't often just made a pile of something, but looking through it, I decided the stuff all by itself was special," Lipski says. So he constructed a mound of it in the grand lobby of the Brooklyn Museum and called it "Pieces of String Too Short to Save." But don't try this at home: Lipski knows junk; maybe you don't.

In a way, found-object works are the sculptures of our times -- at least here in the West. Our society is built on a bedrock of stuff: objects, tools, decorations and all those myriad material definitions of self we fill our spaces with, to the point where we must begin stuffing it into drawers and closets. It clearly takes a special kind of person to make actual art out of these things we collect, though Lipski, as a more-than-qualified spokesman for his profession, promises, "Once you get to know us, you'll find we're very much like humans."

That considered, what sort of stuff intrigues a guy like him? "I'm interested in things that are beautiful," he says. "But I couldn't tell you what makes them beautiful." He cites one of his pieces in the Denver Art Museum's collection, which consists of a harp case filled with candles. "That sort of object, without being specific, makes you think of romance or celebration, or mourning, or energy, or passage of time. It's wide open. Objects that have that much associative power are always interesting to me."

Lipski's Denver associations don't end with a work in the DAM collection: His enigmatic horse-on-a-chair sculpture, "The Yearling," graces the north grounds of the Denver Central Library, confounding some and delighting others. And he's now creating a massive series of hanging sculptures to be mounted on a four-story wall inside David Tryba's new Civic Center Office Building. It will be a three-dimensional paean to what makes a city work from the ground up, consisting of traffic cones, fire axes, hedge trimmers, legal pads, computers, clocks, water coolers, hand drills and other everyday tools used to build and maintain a metropolis. And as the juror for the Foothills Art Center's biennial North American Sculpture Exhibition, Lipski will be back in town this week to give a slide presentation and hand out cash prizes to the top of that heap: those he deems best among the artists chosen for the show. Many of them, he notes, are off the beaten path of the art world, being serious regional artists whose work hasn't made it to the pinnacle of museum or gallery exhibitions.


North American Sculpture Exhibition

Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922. Slide show and talk by exhibit juror Donald Lipski, 7 p.m. January 17, Green Center, Colorado School of Mines campus, 16th and Cheyenne streets, Golden Colorado

January 19-March 10. Free.

"It's like when you go to flea market," he says of the resultant judging process. "After a point, I just had to trust my instinct and start picking things out. I didn't try to make it a show. That was just the stuff I liked best; that kind of show would mostly just be interesting to me. But I did try to impose my own sense of excellence." Though Lipski says he tried to represent all the genres submitted -- from ceramic and stone sculpture to what he calls "bronze figurines" -- in his choices, expect an emphasis on his own junk-pile oeuvre. And that is something he can't quite explain.

But he tries, by quoting playwright David Mamet: "A woman asked Mr. Mamet, 'Where do you get your ideas?' And he said, 'I think of them.' So she asked him, 'Can you be more specific?' And he said, 'Yes, I think of them with my brain.'" Says Lipski, "That's pretty much how I function, too."


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