Cool Off!

Taking in Set in Motion: Tim Prentice at the Robischon Gallery in LoDo is a good way to escape the heat wave.

Prentice's kinetic scupltures are pretty cool, but they're made even cooler (literally) by the multitude of fans the gallery has installed to get them to move. Between the fans and the air-conditioning, the place is positively chilly.

Set in Motion is one of several area exhibits that feature metal art, shown in conjunction with the annual conference of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, which took place in Denver last month. "The group is mostly made up of jewelers," says gallery director Jim Robischon, gesturing upward toward the hovering Prentices, "and we wanted to throw them a curve."

This is the second time Robischon has featured the work of the nationally famous Connecticut artist; the first was in 1999, when Prentice established an artistic beachhead with his multi-part installation titled "Full Fathom Five." The "Fathom" pieces hang in the upper entry lobby of Colorado's Ocean Journey.

Each time Ocean Journey lurched closer to financial ruin earlier this year, the thing I worried about -- after fretting over the fate of the Ron Mason-designed building itself -- was the possible disposition of this monumental and ambitious Prentice creation, which looks great right where it is.

Prentice, who began as a Yale University-trained architect, turned to sculpture in the 1970s and has been awarded commissions around the world.

The Robischon mobiles, both ceiling- and wall-mounted, are closely akin to the "Full Fathom Five" installation. In both, Prentice uses shiny steel wire elaborately hinged into flexible chain mail that is typically accented by grids made of flat metal panels or, less commonly, Lexan or other plastics. The tension between these rigid materials and the flexible sculptures undulating in the fan-driven breezes is intriguing.

The mobiles have been designed in a straightforward way, with a repeated rhythm of simple details that create a curtain-like effect. Nearly all of the sculptures sport bent and joined wire on which metal or plastic plates have been arranged in horizontal and vertical rows.

The use of simple repeated forms, limited materials and the monochrome palette of the materials' natural color all seem to connect Prentice with minimalism -- but with a twist.

One piece, "Judd Mobile," even references the godfather of minimalism, Donald Judd, in its title. But the kinetic feature that Prentice employs doesn't seem so minimal to me. Even though the sculptures are ordered and linear, they lose that sense of order when they move, becoming more organic than geometric. As the folks at Ocean Journey noticed, they sometimes look like schools of fish.

The juxtaposition of Prentice's minimalist ethos with the near-constant alteration of the pieces through movement is smart and successful.

With sixteen sizable sculptures, the Robischon show represents a major display of Prentice's work. This abundance deliciously crowds three of the four ample exhibit spaces up front -- "crowd" being a relative term here, because the floors are bare and the Prentices are hanging from the walls and rafters. Two of the pieces, "Judd Mobile" and "Pequoit Maquette," are so large that each could have been given its own room. Both are spectacular.

The most distinctive feature of "Pequoit Maquette," which meanders between the two front spaces, is its translucent Lexan squares. Combined with the thin skeletal construction of the wire armature, they give the piece an almost vaporous quality, like that of a cloud. "Judd Mobile" does not suggest vapor, but rather Judd's famous metal boxes, with scores of aluminum plates lined up in a row.

The contrast between the two -- the translucency of "Pequoit Maquette" versus the opaqueness of "Judd Mobile" -- is interesting, especially since the pieces were made in precisely the same way using similar materials.

I prefer the translucent works. Among my favorites is the diaphanous "Clear Diamond Curtain," a wall-mounted sculpture in which the wire armature is adorned with an all-over pattern of clear Plexiglas squares set on the diagonal.

All of the Prentices are perfectly balanced, not just in composition, but in terms of the laws of physics, too.

Another show at Robischon, Mark Cesark, was also presented to coincide with the goldsmiths' conference. And if director Robischon was trying to throw a curve at the jewelers with the Prentice show in the front, the Cesark show in the back must have been meant to whiz right by their heads.

These works, which are extremely elegant, are made of reassembled pieces of found-metal signage organized into geometric compositions. But unlike jewelry or the Prentice sculptures, the Cesarks are roughly finished with scuffed paint and rust. In addition, the informal joinery bears scorch marks and gauges that have been left in place for their aesthetic power.

Cesark is from the Western Slope and has exhibited there for the last decade or so. He collects scraps of metal at junkyards and then selects certain ones to use in a single work. In the three wall sculptures that make up this mini-show, Cesark reveals a wonderful instinct for the arrangement of forms and colors. His simple groupings are enriched by the varied surface effects that are a result of the weathered paint.

The Prentice and Cesark displays continue through August.

Several other shows organized in honor of the goldsmiths -- who were here for only one week -- are still up as well.

The beautifully installed Metal, at Ron Judish Fine Arts, is one of them. Last month, Judish rolled out the red carpet, accommodating no less than four tour buses full of conference attendees -- along with the Denver art crowd -- at Metal's opening reception. "It was unbelievable," recalls Judish. "The gallery has never been so crowded as it was that night."

As at Robischon, there's a lot of cold metal on display here, in the form of some very cool artwork. There are no fans going, but the air-conditioning is on full throttle.

The show starts off in the large entryway, where a monumental Erick Johnson hangs from the ceiling. The piece, "Akimbo," is made of carved wood and found-metal components. The resulting form is evocatively organic, even though a lot of the parts are industrially made. The wood -- essentially skinned twigs with a rubbed-in painted finish -- is what gives "Akimbo" its organic character.

Johnson is a well-known Denver sculptor with work in many public and private collections.

Beyond the entryway is the first of a half-dozen spaces that make up the gallery. In each of these, Judish has installed a single artist, essentially making Metal a series of connected solos.

First up are kinetic sculptures by Robert Delaney, who happens to be my longtime partner. Westword policy forbids me to review his work, so, reluctantly, I need to skip to the second space, where Denver sculptor Michael Brohman's abstracted bronze figures are installed.

Brohman, who teaches sculpture at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, was trained as a ceramist and architect. In fact, he briefly practiced as an intern in the office of Humphries Poli Architects, one of Denver's most artistically distinguished firms. But Brohman's architectural history has little presence in his figural style, and these bronzes are much more in line with his ceramics background.

Only a handful of artists at UCD have a presence outside of Auraria, and Brohman is one of them.

His two sculptures in Metal are simplified, conventionalized figures -- a woman in "She," a man in "He" -- placed on flat rectangular bases. They recall the work of Alberto Giacometti, especially the way the proportions have been attenuated. Rich patinas are a hallmark of Brohman's work, and the golden-brown one he cooked up for "He" and "She" is gorgeous.

(There were originally three Brohmans in the show, but one of them, "Us," was sold; according to Judish, the purchasers refused to leave it until the show's end, and he relented and let them take it. The same thing happened earlier at Robischon with one of Tim Prentice's sculptures.

Art collectors want to take their purchases home, and art dealers want to keep their clients happy. So, like it or not, this is a new standard in the art world. Laudably, at both Judish and Robischon, replacement pieces were installed to fill the gaps.)

In the middle space at Judish are two immense sculptures, "Nebula" and "Stargazer," by budding Denver genius David Mazza. The twenty-something Mazza has an incredible vision that's tied to a remarkable level of technical skill.

For both pieces, Mazza mounted linear elements, steel pipes and steel beams in a grouping that cantilevers dramatically off a large central column set at a jaunty angle. There's no mistaking Mazza's relationship to the work of Mark di Suvero, an important source of inspiration for the young artist.

When the NBT Foundation and others gifted di Suvero's "Lao Tzu" to the Denver Art Museum, the DAM's Nancy Tieken pointed out that it raised the bar for public sculpture in Denver. Perhaps she anticipated -- I didn't -- the effect it would have on contemporary sculptors working in town. Clearly, Mazza's been enriched -- and so, in turn, have we.

Next are the creations of another talented emerging sculptor, Todd Oliver, who uses found machine parts and viewer-activated kinetic elements in his work.

In the steel-and-fiberglass "Woball," Oliver has built a rocking pyramidal shape balanced by ball bearings placed in a shallow bowl at the bottom. It's very sophisticated.

Even better is "Dead River," a spike constructed of steel and cast iron. The piece rests on a big rusted cog, and hanging down from the top are silver-colored rods of varying lengths that look and sound like chimes.

In the large back gallery at Judish, Ira Sherman's bizarre sculptures are on view. Sherman, a goldsmith, jeweler and sculptor, is an acknowledged master of Colorado art, despite the fact that he's the artistic corollary of a mad scientist. I say that because Sherman has long been interested in making pieces that interact with the human body in potentially hazardous ways.

In a sense, these sculptures, which are meant to be worn, are logical extensions of Sherman's jewelry; those pieces are on display in a case in the gallery's office.

In this latest group are what Sherman calls "anti-rape devices" -- more commonly known as chastity belts. The belts, some of them quite elaborate, are made of polished metal tubes, mechanical devices, colored plastic tubing and wire woven into patterns. In form, the belts refer directly to the female body and indirectly to the male body. Some of the imagery Sherman suggests are devices -- razors, saws -- meant to sever any penis that would enter the female orifice. Yikes!

As crazy and disturbing as Sherman's ideas are, the pieces themselves, divorced from their intended use, are compellingly luxurious.

Metal is a terrific show, and we owe a salute to those visiting jewelers whose presence inspired both it and the attractions at Robischon. Cheers, too, to the inventor of air-conditioning.

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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