Grin and Bear It

You can't miss one of downtown's newest public sculptures: It's blue, it's gigantic and it's a bear. "I See What You Mean," created by well-known Denver artist Lawrence Argent, is part of the multi-million-dollar art program associated with the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center.

The enormous sculpture was installed on the 14th Street side of the CCC starting two weeks ago, with finishing touches put on late last week. Because the bear faces into the building, appearing to check out what's happening inside, it works as subliminal advertising, universally promoting every event there.

The bear's naturalistic contours provide a marvelous counterpoint to the center's rigid industrial aesthetic. The building, designed by Fentress Bradburn, looks pretty good from the outside, but don't be fooled: It isn't a great work of architecture. There's a kind of dishonesty to it: The theatrical flourishes in metal and glass that appear to be structural aren't. They're just pendants hung on the outside of a big box to give it curb appeal. I'll admit, albeit reluctantly, that it works -- and provides a great backdrop for Argent's piece.

As you approach the forty-foot-tall installation, it seems naturalistic, in a formal sense. With minimal visual information, Argent conveys the image of a standing bear looking into the windows, its paws raised up as though they were against the glass. Getting closer, viewers begin to notice that the bear's shape is carried out in a cubistic manner with triangular panels of various sizes. There's a total absence of any physiological detailing; the "eyes" are just indentations made of intersecting triangular planes.

Also upping its profile is the unbelievable color, which gave the piece an immediate nickname: Big Blue Bear. In selecting the hue, Argent was inspired by a longstanding interest in Italian art history. As a result, he chose a distinctive color known as Venetian blue. There was also a more mundane inspiration for Argent's decision to use that blue: It was the color of the sculpture's plastic study models. The specific color of Argent's bear is a cross between Venetian blue and the hue of those mock-ups.

The surface is another noteworthy aspect. "I See What You Mean" is constructed of cast polymer concrete pieces manufactured by California-based William Kreysler Associates and hung from a hidden steel armature. The material has a pimply face, and the overall color is made up of thousands of dots of different blue, green and black tones. These colored bumps give the bear an appropriate softness that translates into a substitute for fur.

Though I have heard from a naysayer or two, almost everyone is enthralled with the bear. This kind of positive response happens very rarely in the public-art realm. New pieces come on line all the time, but most generate little notice from anyone -- other than art critics, of course. A case in point is "Stone Garden," an outdoor installation of boulders by Jonathan Bonner, which went in last week just a half-block away from "I See What You Mean." It's another component of the CCC's art program, yet few people have taken notice.

Argent is hardly unaware of the positive buzz; it would be impossible to miss. While on the CCC site to supervise the assembly of the bear's six components, he was mobbed by well-wishers. "People came up and thanked me -- thanked me. I don't need to tell you, that's never happened to me before," he says with a laugh.

It's pretty easy to understand why this is happening. "I See What You Mean" is a credible example of conceptual art that's elegant intellectually and visually, and, at the same time, accessible to general audiences. For the sophisticates, there's Argent's use of reduction, in which the bear is conveyed by fractal; for the regular folks, the sculpture takes the form of something they know and like.

Argent carefully navigated his piece to a place between the two opposite shoals of taste. Striking a blow against obscurity, a popular if inexplicable pose in contemporary culture, Argent created a work that many people can appreciate from different standpoints. Though he chose something as approachable as a bear, he did not do a traditional representational image of it, the way a wildlife sculptor would. "I'm not trying to 'dumb it' down," Argent says, "but I do want to make art that's accessible."

If the formula Argent used to pull off this triumph seems simple, it isn't. As evidence of the difficulty, think of Jonathan Borofsky's "Dancers" on the other side of the convention center. Like Argent's bear, Borofsky's figures are abstracted reductions of recognizable things carried out in a monochrome. They should have the same universal high/low appeal, but they don't. Almost everyone hates Borofsky's piece, which is commonly known as "The Aliens," while Big Blue Bear is nearly universally praised. I think that dichotomy might have to do with context. Bears are sort of a Colorado thing, but dancers are generic creatures and have nothing specifically to do with Denver. (I wonder if Borofsky's piece would be better liked had he put cowboy hats on the dancers? Oh, but I kid.) This lack of a connection to Denver -- not to mention the fact that it isn't any good -- explains why "Dancers" has not resonated with most people, while "I See What You Mean" has been an immediate hit.

Another local hookup is Argent himself. "I've lived here longer than anywhere," he says, though it's hard to believe. Having grown up in Australia, the British-born Argent enjoys that distinctive Aussie way of speaking. He got his B.A. at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, coming to the United States in the 1980s to study at the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland College of Art in Baltimore, where he earned an MFA. After a series of teaching gigs and residencies, including one at the prestigious John Michael Kohler Foundation, Argent moved to Denver in 1993 to become a professor at the University of Denver, where he's been ever since.

Since his arrival, Argent has exhibited widely at such venues as the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arvada Center and Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. He is currently repped by William Havu Gallery and has done a number of pieces that are displayed in public places, notably "Virere," the huge blades of grass on South Broadway in Englewood.

I think it's really great and doubly special when artists who are committed to living and working in Denver see that commitment requited by the city through the public-art programs. It's not that I object to getting pieces by big-name artists -- such as Bernar Venet, whose masterpiece sculpture "Indeterminate Line" is on the lawn of the Speer side of the CCC. It's that if our best artists aren't promoted in their own back yard, then where, exactly, should they go to get a leg up?

I predict that "I See What You Mean" will come to be a symbol of Denver in the national media, with shots of it showing up in promos for sporting events and the like. Right now, 14th Street is still a construction zone and not the bustling thoroughfare it will be when the nearby Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House are finished this fall. Then, with the predictable increase in foot and road traffic, I guarantee the sculpture will really hit it big with the public. So check it out while you can still get a parking spot nearby.

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