Art of Identity

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Also worth seeing is The Legend of the Seven Calendar Diner, at Cordell Taylor Gallery, a solo devoted to the recent work of Denver sculptor Bryan Andrews. Legend is as different from H2O as night is from day. There's no sociological content at all in this show; instead, the subject is highly personal, springing not from cultural critiques, but from Andrews letting his mind wander while driving alone in his pickup truck out in the boondocks. In fact, as viewers enter Cordell Taylor, the image of the countryside, with dozens of Andrews's sculptures standing in for trees, is undeniable.

The show's title refers to the culture found on the roads less traveled. "It's part of a mythic rating system among truckers for diners on the road, with a ŒSeven Calendar Diner' being the best," Andrews says. "You know how in small towns, the businesses -- the repair shop, the dry cleaners -- put out calendars? The more calendars a diner had on the wall, the better the food was, and having seven would be a lot."

But there's more to these Andrews sculptures than a rural legend, which, to be honest, is hard to see in the pieces themselves. They are the most recent examples of the works in Andrews's long-running "Fetem" series, which are pagan or tribal in appearance and really don't seem to be inspired by the sights found along the roadside. The term "fetem," which Andrews invented by combining the words "totem" and "fetish," underscores the basic primitive theme of the pieces.

As might be inferred from the invented word, Andrews is highly imaginative. He not only coins words, but he has also created his own unique belief system, one akin to a religion, in order to provide a context in which to view his pieces. The "Fetem" sculptures are the icons of this unique one-man faith, and they have their own symbolic language of simple forms, but their complete meaning is something only Andrews knows.

The archetypal fetem is composed of a base, a vertical shaft and a finial. The shaft is the totem part of the word, and the finial is the fetish part. In this sculptural group, the chief material is found wood (as is the usual practice for Andrews), mostly fragments of large wooden beams. These segments stand on end on square wooden plinths that sit on the floor. At the very top of this combination is a carved wooden element that Andrews painted blue.

Not every fetem adheres strictly to this formula of base, shaft and finial -- "The Meeting" looks like a candelabra, and "Sunchasers" looks like a cart -- but nearly all of the great ones are in the archetypal form. "Censoring the Prophet," one of the best pieces in this show, is a classic fetem, with the finial resembling a crown and thus lending the piece a heraldic character. Most of the others also have a regal look, at least in a primitive sense.

"Trying to Hug the Sun" is another orthodox fetem, with the same winning combination of simplicity and sophistication as "Prophet." The fetems' simple monolithic form links them to minimalism, which is flawlessly melded with the predominating primitivism.

Every aspect of the fetems contains an intended meaning, right down to the color. The blue used on the carved finials is very nice and goes beautifully with the rich golden tones of the old wood, which has been left in its natural state. The deep shade is also a clue to the meaning of the fetems. "You know about the blue, don't you?" asks Andrews. "It's the color of my eyes."

The generous use of this shade of blue, which Andrews has anointed as his personal symbol throughout the "Fetem" series, indicates that the artist has cast himself in a very prominent role in his imaginary religion. I guess if you're going to go to the trouble of creating a belief system and making a complement of devotional items to go with it, you might as well put yourself in the center of it.

To be honest, not all of the fetems are successful, and the whole Legend show is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, a couple of them are pretty bad, particularly "Where the Forgotten Wait," which incorporates a little house. Luckily, these few false notes don't bring down the show, and the best hold up the rest. Andrews pulled this off by giving all of the fetems -- good and bad alike -- a lot of shared characteristics so that they blend together seamlessly and look great in a group.

It's funny, but even though Andrews made up the whole spiritual angle, which is pretty ridiculous on its face, Legend somehow succeeds in communicating the idea of religious devotion and worship. The fetems create the ambience of a chapel inside Cordell Taylor, which is an amazing accomplishment -- especially when you consider that Andrews did it with a couple of old beams and a quart of blue paint.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia