Father and son Charles Parson and Collin Parson are both sculptors who’ve embraced conceptual abstraction, but they do not work collaboratively and their pieces are distinctive. Charles is more into creating freestanding works and installations, while Collin tips toward bas-reliefs. Still, their art links in different ways, as evidenced by Counterpoints: Charles Parson + Collin Parson, which fills the indoor galleries at the Museum of Outdoor Arts; there’s an extension of the show in Greenwood Village’s Westlands Park, which is decidedly not nearby.
This is the second time that Charles and Collin have presented their work together in a major exhibit. The first was a few years ago, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. While that show emphasized how much their work differed, the current display shows how much the two artists’ works resonate with each other.
A dean of contemporary sculpture in Colorado, Charles has a career stretching back to the 1970s. Over the years his work has been very experimental, and his output has ranged from realistic drawings to non-narrative performance pieces. He’s also taught sculpture at a range of area colleges. Collin is perhaps best known as the gallery director and curator at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, but he’s had a parallel career as an artist.
Organized by director of programs Tim Vacca, the MOA show is laid out so that the work of the father faces the work of the son, piece for piece. While the two artists were clearly communicating with one another about their contributions, they still worked in their own signature approaches. The paired vignettes in the first several sections of the entry allow the viewer to compare the works side by side. Unfortunately, given the somewhat eccentric floor plan of the MOA galleries, this clarity is lost as the show proceeds. But Vacca’s decision to use a darkish charcoal gray for the walls and stands for Chuck’s works and white walls for Collin’s helps keep the division fresh in our minds.
Charles operates between the two poles of his work, industrial and natural, which he resolves into cohesive statements. The industrial predominates, with such ready-made materials as sheets of glass and plastic, along with connecting hardware in steel and brass, assembled into essentially symmetrical constructions that are beautifully crafted; some parts, including those where he uses nuts and bolts to pierce glass, are reminiscent of watch-works or clasps on jewelry. The natural is represented by depictions of the landscape (Charles also sometimes refers to the figure, if only in scale); this classic approach is seen most easily in the pieces that include highly detailed, realistic renderings of scenic vistas, but even the works with wholly abstract compositions still recall the landscape.
Charles’s materials and methods of fabrication have what he calls “physicality,” and the resulting works, even when he uses something as insubstantial as transparent sheets, have an emphatic physical presence while simultaneously revealing the physical effort that it took to build them. Even the small and often delicate 3-D drawings and sculptures at the MOA show possess this sense of the physical, of an object manipulated with hands and tools. It’s even more evident in his full-bodied large sculptures, which are in the outdoor display.
This physical involvement is the chief difference between the methods of father and son. Accessing computer programs and contract fabricators to realize his pieces, Collin conjures up sculptures and wall panels in which the touch of the hand has been completely removed, replaced by digitally driven laser cutting applied to ready-made sheets of plastic. Collin’s signature is to use these pierced plastic sheets as screens with hidden lighting, or alone, contrasting the reflective surfaces with the voids that reveal the walls behind them.
Other works also involve light and/or plastic sheets, including a series of enclosed lightboxes, each with a simple linear pattern machine-marked on the front sheet. More unusual are the pieces from Collin’s “Positive Voids” series. To make them, he stacks thin squares of clear plastic sheeting in a pile. Although the sides and the top and bottom of the stacks are solid sheets, the sheets above have been cut with internal openings so that they come together to reveal forms inside the stacks. It’s a cool effect, reminiscent of art glass.
The back-and-forth between the artists that’s so evident in the museum show essentially disappears in the outside portion. Charles dominates the conversation here, with a half-dozen monumental works; Collin shows only two. But this disproportionate representation is appropriate, since Charles’s specialty is the big outdoor statement while Collin’s work is meant for indoor sites, with just a few exceptions, like these two pieces.
The two Collin sculptures are simple forms — “Stele” a flat rectangle set on edge, “Ostium” a door frame — executed in mirror-finished stainless steel so that their surfaces directly reflect the scenery of the park that surrounds them.
Two sprawling installations by Charles, “Compass for the Floor of the Sky” #1 and #2, are similar in conception: horizontally oriented geometric constructions that both seem to hover slightly above the ground and culminate in the middle with vertical finials. They’ve been created with I-beams and other industrial steel elements unified with all-over white finishes. Their horizontal orientation underscores the landscape content of these pieces and smooths their connections to the ground and the park’s hilly contours.
Seeing Charles’s impressive sculptures in this setting reminded me of how absurd it is that, given his significance in the contemporary art scene, there aren’t any examples of his work permanently sited in a prominent place in downtown Denver. In fact it’s a disgrace, considering the low quality of much of what’s out there.
As I drove away from the shows, I thought about how much Charles has influenced Collin — and how much he hasn’t. Even though their work is utterly different in intent and appearance, their three-dimensional pieces are compatible and look so good together...when they really shouldn’t.
Counterpoints: Charles Parson + Collin Parson, through December 15, Museum of Outdoor Arts, 1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood; through August 9, Westlands Park, 5701 South Quebec Street, Englewood. For more information, call 303-806-0444 or visit moaonline.org.
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