It's funny how things go in waves in the art world. One minute there's a gaggle of landscape shows everywhere you look, and the next minute photography and photo-based works are everywhere. This phenomenon is under way again, as there seems to be a lot of three-dimensional work on view in the galleries right now.
The most important of these sculpture exhibits is Black & White, a show at Walker Fine Art featuring the work of Jerry Wingren alongside that of Brenda Stumpf. Wingren is the bigger draw because he is so well-known hereabouts, having built an impressive career in contemporary sculpture and installation from his base in the foothills west of Boulder.
A conceptual artist who aims to convey spiritual content in his pieces, Wingren has a signature style that combines Scandinavian austerity with Japanese simplicity and a dash of Northwest Coast Native arts. In a sense, all of these aesthetic currents emerged in his work as much from his life experiences as from his art training.
Born in Alaska, Wingren grew up in a town whose population was neatly divided between Scandinavian immigrants and Tlingit people. The Tlingit are famous for their totem poles, and these carved-wood sculptures are definitely part of Wingren's artistic heritage, as he saw them every day during his childhood. Interestingly, he didn't overtly respond to them in his work until many years after he had left Alaska.
In 1959, Wingren entered the University of Washington but focused on Scandinavian and German literature rather than art. In the early 1960s, armed with a Fulbright Fellowship, he went to the University of Bremen to study German drama. While he was there, Wingren began working as a sculptor, apprenticing with two master sculptors, Otto Almstadt and Moritz Bohrmann; he later toured Germany for a few years with Kontakt Kunst, a group that presented live sculpting demonstrations.
Wingren developed his mature style, as seen in the work at Walker, in the 1980s and '90s. It was during the latter decade that he took a sabbatical to Japan. Wingren was first inspired by Japanese art in Germany, when he studied origami with Hiromi Hoshiko in Heidelberg; he carried out his own versions in folded steel instead of paper.
The first part of the show features a group of sculptures from Wingren's "Panino" series, and as the title implies, these works take the form of sandwiches, at least broadly speaking. Wingren has carved two pieces of wood, either red or yellow cedar, into similar but not identical shapes, then placed a rounded stone made of steatite between them. Several of these are mounted on rods so that the iconic "sandwich" form seems to be floating in the air.
Being airborne is hardly what the "Resting Stones" are about, however: They are firmly held in place down close to the surface of their copper stands. To say they have a weighty appearance would be accurate. For the "Granite Resting Stones," Wingren uses Swedish black granite, but since he's left it roughly finished, it's gray in color and not black. The three pieces on the stand are breathtakingly restrained in their look, with Wingren carving the stone into flattened, nearly naturalistic shapes evocative of river rocks worn by the rushing water. The most elegant of the "Resting Stones" are the ones made of dazzling white marble that seem to let off their own internal glow under the gallery lights.
The Zen character of Wingren's utter minimalism is contrasted tremendously by the work of the other artist in Black & White, Brenda Stumpf from New York, who is new to Walker's stable. Her pieces, mostly wall-relief sculptures, are densely composed and elaborately constructed — they're downright baroque. And whereas Wingren uses one or maybe two different materials, Stumpf uses everything imaginable.
In "The Reconciliation of the Two Mary's," a monumental wall construction, Stumpf has employed a mannequin bust, hand-cut copper plates and pieces of paper, wire, canvas, sand and a bunch of other things. These bits are used to convey the headless and armless bust of a woman wearing a floor-length gown; the reference in the title to there being two figures is expressed by the vertical spit up the middle of the composition. Despite the wide range of material, Stumpf has unified the entire thing with many coats of white paint. This all-over and somewhat matte finish makes it look as though "Two Mary's" is made entirely of paper, which couldn't be more wrong.
On the opposite wall is "Undercurrents," a six-part piece in which Stumpf has created a horizon line that runs through all six; above it is a dense bar of detritus composed of artificial flowers and plants as well as hand-cut shapes, dress patterns and other ephemera. Considering the horizontality of the composition, there's a definite landscape character to this piece.
I've often teased gallery owner Bobbi Walker about the titles she gives her shows, but I've got to admit that Black & White was perfect. Not only is most everything on display black or white, but the essence of the pieces by Wingren and Stumpf are also opposite to one another.
Another worthwhile three-dimensional show, Confront/(A)Void, a Joseph Shaeffer solo, is on display at Artyard Contemporary Sculpture. Shaeffer is a young, self-taught sculptor from Boulder who has gotten a lot of attention for his magnetic and suspension sculptures over the past few years.
In some ways, his work at Artyard breaks from those types of sculptures, since it looks nothing like them Conceptually, though, the two are connected, because both focus on voids. In the older works, it was the spaces in between the forms where the magnetic fields acted, typically holding the forms of his sculptures apart from one another.
Another way the "Void" pieces relate to Shaeffer's earlier work is the way all three types use the laws of nature as a topic. Shaeffer has written that he began the new series with drawings based on satellite images of geological formations of depressions. To render them, he first cut out heavy paper stock and layered it one sheet on top of another, resulting in the effect of a three-dimensional topographic map. There are some of these cut-paper versions at Artyard, but they are overshadowed by the larger and more substantial pieces that take up the same theme.
For Shaeffer, the physical voids in nature that led to the "Void" works, including the aforementioned paper constructions, have narrative content. The actual voids — holes within the pieces, or representations of holes — are meant to represent psychological voids. More than that, Shaeffer sees the physical voids in his works as actually filling the psychological voids, apparently his own. This means that the "Voids" are also an unlikely take on the self-portrait tradition, despite there being no figural elements in any of them.
The most impressive is "Void 19-718 (Void Confront)," hanging right inside the front door. Shaeffer has taken black plastic tubing and looped it together into a half-dozen soft ovals. The ovals are in different sizes, with the largest up front and the smallest at the rear, forming a loose and truncated cone. These loops have been covered with black plastic strapping ties that are mounted at an angle like hairs sprouting out of the tubes and covering the overall form inside and out. The entire thing has been hung from the ceiling so that the lined-up openings in the ovals — the void — is at eye level.
A subtle feature of "Void 19-718" is that it is installed so that when viewers peer through the central opening in the suspended form, they see the acrylic-on-canvas painting "Void 02-07," and the actual aperture in the hanging sculpture lines up perfectly with the rendering of an opening in the painting. It's a very nice effect.
It's always a risk for artists to set out to change their established paths because of the danger that they may lose their way. Although Shaeffer has gone a new direction, he's kept his work going strong and on the same trajectory.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.