The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art isn’t the only recent addition to the Front Range art scene. The $70 million Ent Center for the Arts opened last month on the University of Colorado Colorado Springs campus, and the facility is as impressive as its inaugural show, a solo dedicated to Floyd D. Tunson of Manitou Springs, one of the most important artists working in Colorado.
The 92,000-square-foot building sits on a rise above the busy intersection of North Nevada Avenue and Austin Bluffs Parkway. This is at the extreme southwestern corner of the campus, its most high-profile site in terms of traffic, and the Ent Center deserves the attention. Created by Denver’s Semple Brown Design together with New York’s H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, a specialist in the design of arts centers, the structure was conceived as an exaggerated horizontal with an undulating, south-facing facade of enormous curving glass walls and shiny silver cladding that looks like titanium but is actually a composite. The wave-like undulations are in conversation with each other, swooping in and out, above and below. A contrasting approach is seen on the north-facing rear side, where the internal volumes of the building bump up and out in a cubic conception. But that continuous facade in front sets the building’s futuristic tone.
The site design, which also incorporated an existing arroyo, was conceived by Denver’s Davis Partnership, and the landscaping was done by Tapis Associates of Colorado Springs. The topography of the campus is extreme, ranging from steep hills to the even steeper bluffs beyond them, and this spot at the bottom of the hills presented challenges. Without some major land resculpting, the Ent Center would be coming up out of the ground on the lower side, so the dirt from the excavations for the foundation was piled up in front. The fill was then turned into terraces held in place by curvilinear walls mirroring the curved elements on the building. The plantings are native grasses, bushes and trees. There are stairs and meandering walkways leading around the structure and up to several monumental sculptures that have turned the lawn into a full-fledged sculpture garden.
I walked around and through the Ent Center with Daisy McGowan, director of the Galleries of Contemporary Art that are housed in the building and in a satellite space downtown. She assembled the sculptures on view outside, most of which are on temporary, two-year loans through an initiative called Art WithOut Limits. But they could — and should — be made permanent fixtures.
The standouts are a trio of remarkable metal spires, two with kinetic features, set in a regular rhythm across the lawn. These pieces look so contemporary and are so in keeping with the building’s character, you’d think they were custom-made — but the artist, the legendary Starr Kempf, died nearly 25 years ago. Also compelling is Linda Fleming’s large, linear sculpture near the street at the bottom of the hill, in which bands of rusting steel outline a sphere with arching legs. According to McGowan, in a few months one of Fleming’s pierced-screen sculptures will be installed at the top, close to the building. Both Kempf and Fleming have long been recognized as masters of Colorado art.
Ent, which gave a $12 million donation to the project (hence its name), is a well-known financial institution in Colorado Springs, and before the sculptures were installed, many passersby thought the new construction would be a bank, McGowan says. But given the theatricality of the building’s volumes and with the sculptures now in place, it’s readily apparent that the Ent Center is a cultural institution.
The main entrance at the southeast corner of the building leads into the grand Murray and Betty Ross Lobby, which has curved window walls that take in the majestic views of Pikes Peak; it’s clear that the architects placed the walls to frame the stunning views. The lobby feeds into the very impressive Shockley-Zalabak Theater, which seats nearly 800, has a full-fledged fly-house over the stage and boasts adjustable panels on the ceiling that can be tuned acoustically. Facilities for music, theater and dance take up most of the interior; other performance spaces include the Chapman Foundations Recital Hall, reserved for classical music, and the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, home to the resident TheatreWorks troupe. There are also rehearsal halls, studios and workshop rooms for UCCS classes.
The art component that begins in the sculpture garden picks up again just off the main lobby, in the wide, double-height corridor. Hanging from the ceiling are skeletal rowboats from Tunson’s “Haitian Dreamboat” series, which refer to Haitian refugees headed for Florida in a ramshackle flotilla. Although they foreshadow Floyd D. Tunson: Janus, the debut show at the Ent, they are not a part of that solo and will remain in place after the exhibit comes down.
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Tunson works in a wide range of approaches, from neo-pop pieces with African-American content to abstracts. McGowan focused on the latter in Janus. The show starts in the small lobby just outside the 2,500-square-foot Marie Walsh Sharpe Gallery, where McGowan has placed a single large painting adjacent to the entry. Inside, viewers are invariably drawn to the 42-foot-long “Untitled 147”; the enormous piece covers the expansive wall to the left. On multiple panels, Tunson has clustered rounded and rock-like colored shapes and mounded dots; on top of them, he’s painted a broad, flowing white line that turns in on itself repeatedly as it runs across the entire length. Tunson created the mural in sections last year and told McGowan that he had never seen it put together until he hung it at the Ent Center. In a somewhat different vein is the unusual corner installation “Homage to Senga,” in which Tunson salutes Senga Nengudi, an internationally known conceptual artist who lives in Colorado Springs. Nengudi is interested in manipulating tensile features, and Tunson uses bungees to hold up the sculptural elements here, as well as to hold out a canvas skirt that extends like a canopy. The show also includes a group of other large abstracts and semi-abstracts.
Tunson was an inspired choice to introduce the new Sharpe gallery — and, by extension, the Ent Center itself. With this show and the Kempfs and the Fleming outside, the place is virtually a master class in Colorado art.
Floyd D. Tunson: Janus, through April 15, Ent Center for the Arts, 5225 North Nevada Avenue, Colorado Springs, 719-255-8227, galleryuccs.org.