Hammers and Saws

The building at the corner of 17th and Wazee Streets, where Metropolitan State College's Center for the Visual Arts occupies most of the ground floor, is currently shrouded in a jungle of metal pipes. But the oddly artistic maze isn't part of the center's fabulous Contemporary Metals USA exhibit. Instead, it's that ubiquitous feature of LoDo, the construction scaffold. "That went up three days before the opening," says gallery director Sally Perisho with a sigh. "I've been telling people Christo's coming to wrap the building."

The scaffolding blocks the large display windows that usually allow passersby to glimpse the shows within. And that's too bad, because this current effort is one of the most intelligently conceived exhibits being presented in the area.

The large group show features full-sized sculptures by artists from around the country. It's the kind of thing Denverites rarely see, and Perisho says she understands why. "I should have called it 'Heavy Metal'--everything is so heavy and costly to ship," she says. "Some of the pieces cost more than $500 just to get here, and it will cost the same amount to ship them back."

Luckily for Perisho, someone else was picking up the tab this time around. Corporate sponsors typically recede into the background of art shows, but not so Timet Titanium Metals Corporation, which is using Contemporary Metals USA as an advertisement of sorts for its interlocking titanium roof plates. A quartet of these plates, complete with Timet's logo, leads off the show. What makes this more interesting than crass is the fact that these glimmering metal squares were used to cloak the new but already world-famous Guggenheim Museum by architect Frank Gehry, just now getting its finishing touches in Bilbao, Spain. The roof plates have been paired with a photo mural of the museum that fills an entire wall at the Metro center.

The long-awaited opening of the Guggenheim brings to mind the continuing struggles of Denver's own budding Museum of Contemporary Art. That group has been locked in negotiations for the former Vulcan Iron Works building on West Colfax Avenue for what seems like years. Given the problems that have held up the purchase of the fairly ordinary turn-of-the-century brick building--essentially, who will pay to clean up the pollution left as a legacy of iron smelting--why doesn't MoCA build its own building from the ground up? As with the Guggenheim, a dramatic new design by a recognized talent could make the place a worldwide sensation before the doors even open. There could even be a competition, as there was for the Denver Public Library on the Civic Center. And it's not as if MoCA doesn't have the big-bucks connections to pull off such a coup. So, MoCA board, how about it?

In the meantime, visitors to Contemporary Metals can enjoy the Guggenheim from afar, along with the various sculptures that fill out the rest of the show. The sculptors selected by Perisho have taken metal sheets and sawed them, hammered them, cut them, bent them and joined them together in a variety of ways. This so-called direct metal sculpture is an outgrowth of metalsmithing, a method historically used for creating utilitarian items such as teapots and military armor. And though Perisho has chosen only artists who make non-functional objects, the vessel-making tradition of the metalsmiths comes through thanks to several artists who use the bowl form as their starting point.

Notable in this regard is Tom Joyce, a world-renowned metals artist living in Santa Fe. According to Perisho, "about three-quarters of the artists in the show have been directly influenced by Joyce," and it's easy to see why. Joyce is represented by four pieces, including a pair of decorative vessels made of forged iron. "Fibonacci Bowl" is a low, flat form made of two shallow dishes that seem to float. The naturalistic and vaguely organic shapes are highlighted by a natural metal finish, and the marks of Joyce's forging tools can be seen in the scabrous pattern of the surfaces. "Rectangular Pieced Plate Bowl" is more conventional but just as impressive. Essentially a centerpiece--though the table on which it's placed had better be a hefty one--it features a wide collar with a perfectly hemispherical bowl in the center.

Others who've gone bowling in Contemporary Metals include J. Agnes Chwae of Madison, Wisconsin, and Brigid O'Hanrahan of Philadelphia. Chwae is represented by a handful of hammered metal vessels finished in lovely earth-toned patinas; O'Hanrahan, who uses highly polished aluminum, has created three small bowls, two of which include random letters as decorative motifs. These bowls, which are utilitarian only in theory, straddle the border between fine art and craft. None but Richie Rich would think of using the works of Joyce, Chwae or O'Hanrahan--which cost thousands of dollars each--to eat his cereal.

Other artists in the show refer to metalsmithing's functional roots while making objects that aren't useful at all--though they are nice to look at. Such is the case with Stephen Yusko of Makanda, Illinois, an emerging artist who does himself proud with efforts like "Oil Can," a container with a rich gunmetal finish and a long arching spout. Even less functional are the lidded bottles by another Illinois artist, Rich Smith of Carbondale. At first glance, Smith's mild-steel sculpture "Pylon Container" looks like it's made of fired ceramic. The heavily worked surfaces include incised lines and bumpy scallops that Smith has finished with a controlled rust. "Pylon Container" is magnificent.

The bowls, cans and bottles in the show provide the viewer with a good grounding in the medium of metal work. But they also serve as counterpoint to the larger abstract sculptures that dominate the exhibit. Though there are a few freestanding sculptures--including a wonderful untitled steel-mesh composition from Florida's Richard Beckman--most of the pieces in the show are either wall-hung bas-reliefs or floor-bound installations.

Among the notable bas-reliefs are a pair of elegant aluminum-sheet constructions by Tom Logan, the only Colorado artist in the show. Logan, who teaches furniture-making at Metro, has furnished the gallery with two geometric compositions stained with a whitish residue that dulls the natural shine of the aluminum. Santa Fe's Peter Joseph is likewise responsible for two sublime bas-reliefs. "Hurt," a rusted-steel piece from 1994, is made up of three vertical forms joined in a wing-like shape. The steel form of 1995's "Wellspring" is less regular and more expressionistic, with abstract forms arrayed around a center point. Both pieces are very effective, especially hung as they have been here, at eye level.

Given a small gallery all to himself by Perisho is installation artist Hoss Haley of Penland, North Carolina, who makes good use of the space with "Corner" and "Seed," a pair of hollow horn shapes made of joined metal sheets. Haley incorporates the spaces the pieces occupy as an essential part of each work: "Corner" leans against the corner of its space; "Seed" lies on the floor.

Also using wall and floor as intended elements in her work is Noellynn Pepos of Layton, New Jersey. In the 1995 installation "Bad Cede," she props an iron rod against the wall and pairs it with an iron egg shape on the floor. Though thoroughly abstract, the piece is imbued with political content, referring to the ceding of land from one individual to another. The rod suggests a fence post, while the egg shape has been forged from barbed wire.

Perhaps the most compelling piece of any kind in Contemporary Metals is "Micro/Macro," a complex installation by Pittsburgh's Carol Kumata that fills a good deal of the center's main gallery. Kumata makes skeletal forms that recall seed pods, creating her organic shapes by joining galvanized steel rods. The resulting shapes have been arranged haphazardly--but effectively--on the floor.

If there is a complaint about this exhibit, it's the paucity of local artists. As last fall's Steel show at the Arvada Center proved, there's no shortage of talent on Denver's metal front. But give Perisho the benefit of the doubt: Though a few more Denver artists wouldn't have hurt, this is a formidable collection of out-of-state plates.

One local installation artist who couldn't have been included under any circumstances in Contemporary Metals is Christopher Nitsche--for the simple reason that he most often works in wood. But don't miss his marvelous site-specific installation Ship's Shadow, on view through tomorrow at the Philip J. Steele Gallery of the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

One of the city's most interesting installation artists, Nitsche has exhibited at venues as divergent as Planet Off Gallery (now the Antropolis Galleria), Edge, Core and the Arvada Center. In "Ships Shadow," he takes up his signature topic, which may seem an odd affectation for an artist who has spent the last several years in land-locked Colorado (and before that, the even drier terrain of New Mexico). But Nitsche makes it work.

In the oddly shaped Steele Gallery--which serves also as RMCAD's lobby--Nitsche has arranged short black boards on the floors and up the wall. The intriguing effect, as indicated by the title, is that of a ship casting a shadow, as though it were floating above our heads. The installation has been bolstered by Nitsche's "Concept Drawing: Ships Shadow," a stunning mixed-media piece that differs considerably from the installation but stands as a work in its own right. Cruise on down.

Contemporary Metals USA, through February 28 at the MSCD Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

Christopher Nitsche: Ships Shadow, through February 20 at the Philip J. Steele Gallery, 6875 East Evans Avenue, 753-8046.

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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