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The distinction between sculpture and installation is a blurry one--and that makes sense, given that the two mediums are both essentially concerned with artfully occupying space. Many local contemporary sculptors and installation artists test the boundary between the two art forms. But no one knows the territory better than well-known and highly regarded artist Lawrence Argent, an art professor at the University of Denver. So it's perfect that Argent is prominently featured in two local group shows that attempt to explore the place where sculpture meets installation: Insight on Site, at the Arvada Center, and Materials Witness, at the Emmanuel Gallery.

Surely there is no place on earth--at least no place around here--where a viewer would be less likely to expect a credible exhibit on the art of installation than at the Arvada Center. That's because the center permanently displays two of the worst-ever examples of the medium: the Clarice Dreyer eyesore "Skyline"--all those aluminum twigs climbing the outdoor theater's stage house--and Vito Acconci's willful misconduct "Dirt Wall," which is as ugly as it is useless. Of course, ugliness and uselessness are qualities not entirely inconsistent with the Arvada Center itself, which was once beautiful but since a series of insensitive and marginally functional additions in 1992 has been one of the worst site gags on the Front Range.

Even with these many strikes against her, head curator Kathy Andrews has come through--as she has time and again. Insight On Site might not be good enough to erase from our memories the vandalism of Dreyer or Acconci. But it comes close.

Occupying the large, if cavern-like, lower galleries, Insight on Site presents six installations. Argent's "Voyage," the first piece that visitors come upon in the show, sets a high standard by which the remaining five invariably must be judged. All but one of them make the grade.

For "Voyage," which fully occupies the ample side gallery just off the main entrance, Argent has lined the walls with cream-colored feathers held together with nearly invisible clear plastic tape. The feathers have been spread in drifts on the floor against the gallery's beige carpeting, creating a pretty good facsimile of water. Around the room, old suitcases pierced by cast oars have been suspended from the ceiling with thin wires. In the center, an elaborate rowing machine grinds away, moving the tips of the oars in small circles. The slow movements of the oars, interestingly, don't move the feathers on the floor; that job has been left to viewers' shoes, which carry them through the other installations.

"Voyage" seems rife with narrative content. For instance, the movement of the oars and the flying suitcases appear to refer to Argent's own life. The Australian-born artist has done plenty of traveling himself, arriving in Denver a few years ago after stints on both the East and West coasts.

But Argent isn't just an expert at drawing people into galleries; he's also one of the most intelligent artists around, a point underscored by his presentation of these works. In lieu of the hokey and pretentious statements on panels that "explain" the other pieces in this show, Argent simply lists his materials and gives credit to his collaborators, allowing viewers to experience "Voyage" as an entirely visual event. How refreshing. Across from Argent's "Voyage" is "Shift," by Sherry Wiggins. The work is much better than Wiggins's two Denver International Airport commissions, "Pivot Emblem" and "Fenceline Artifact" (both done in collaboration with Buster Simpson). But it shares with them an interest in using the natural world as a device to alter visual perspective.

In "Shift," a room made of unfinished lumber and unbleached muslin features a narrow entrance that leads in turn to a wide curved wall onto which color slides of natural scenes are projected. Black rectangles hang from the ceiling, and when the visitor gets to the back wall and is forced to turn around, it becomes evident that the backs of the rectangles have been hung with mirrors. The effect is interesting, but it's the Japanese-teahouse appearance of the lumber-and-muslin construction of the exterior that provides "Shift's" real strength. The subtlety of the muslin also provides the perfect backdrop to Blaine De St. Croix's adjacent "Rare Pages VI," essentially a set of wall-hung bookcases with three library ladders on tracks.

Beyond the central atrium, where "Rare Pages VI" has been installed, are tour-de-force efforts in the two back galleries. In the gallery that opens onto the atrium, it's the gorgeous "Concealing Tolerances," by Andrew Connelly, and in the side gallery, Christopher Nitsche's breath-taking "Metaphyesthai."

"Concealing Tolerances" is simultaneously dense and minimal, unified by a large white tarp that defines it. Connelly has brought together custom elements like a black staircase with ready-mades such as the grids of buckets. He also throws in found objects--a refrigerator on a sculpture stand and a motorcycle hung upside-down from an iron frame. Connelly even incorporates video: Visitors are recorded via a hidden camera behind a curtain, which is surmounted by a Soviet rifle in a Perspex case. This thing is great; just don't read the artist's statement, which falls into the I'm-too-old-for-it stream of consciousness school.

The same can be said for Nitsche's "Metaphyesthai": Forget the artist's statement, which in this case is way too mytho-poetic. The installation itself, though, is marvelous. "Metaphyesthai" is a monumental spiral of found lumber that has been color-graded by Nitsche to move from light, newer pieces at the entrance to dark, old pieces at the dead-end center. The effect is transcendent.

Of the six artists featured here, only Melanie Walker fails to create a coherent installation, choosing instead to decorate one of the rooms. Though individual elements are strong--especially the altered photo-enlargements of animals in fake-fur frames--"Myopic Mythologies" does not hang together as a single piece, which is an essential feature of an installation.

The perfect companion to Insight on Site--indeed, a virtual adjunct to it--is Materials Witness, a sculpture show at the Emmanuel Gallery that includes examples of installation art. But hurry: The Arvada show closes this weekend, so there's little time left to see the two shows back-to-back, which is the way to do it.

Emmanuel Gallery, located on the Auraria campus, is a tiny venue made significant by the courageous direction of Carol Keller. And with Materials Witness, Keller has filled in many of the blanks left open at Arvada. Just as with Insight On Site, it is Argent who sets the high standard, this time with "Wings of America," a red mechanized exercycle outfitted with lead wings and a bird's nest in place of the seat. The cycle remains stationary as the wings slowly flap up and down. The sculpture is closely akin to the rowing machine of "Voyage." Argent also throws in an example from his "Library of Applause" series, displayed last year in a masterful solo show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. It consists of a series of panels mounted to the wall with bronze hinges and frames that surround antique gloves suspended in cast resin.

Another stand-out artist here is John McEnroe, represented by four strong efforts. Even his "Roberta Louis," a plastic-Brillo-pad relief, is a resounding success. But by far the best thing by McEnroe in this show is his "Voyage" (very different from Argent's installation in Arvada, though it shares the same title). McEnroe's work features stacks of colored plastic plates rigged to the ceiling with heavy ropes and held together with over-engineered hardware. The result is elegant and substantial.

Other notable inclusions in Materials Witness are works by Russell Beardsley and Virginia Folkestad. Beardsley's wall piece "Calendar" is made up of small angle-iron shelves, some of which sport amber-colored latex forms that recall vases. It's a lovely work, and it appears to mark the artist's return to minimalism after a brief hiatus from the style. Folkestad fills Emmanuel's choir loft (the gallery used to be a church and later a synagogue) with "Nature Study," a set of industrial-looking steel frameworks that she unveiled at Spark last year. The frameworks hold either hollow wax orbs filled with seeds or unfinished plywood boxes. It's Folkestad's signature topic, of course--humanity versus nature.

Taken together, Insight on Site and Materials Witness constitute a broad survey of the region's artists who are moving away from sculpture and toward installation. And when you realize that some of the most famous local figures with relevant work--like Lorre Hoffman and Chuck Parson--have been left out of both shows, you get some idea of the widespread appeal of the movement.

Insight on Site, through July 28 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 431-3939.

Materials Witness, through August 2 at the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria Campus, 556-8337.

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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