Hard and Fast

It's all but official: Young Denver artist Emmett Culligan can now be considered one of the top contemporary sculptors in Colorado. And the proof is in the spectacular Emmett Culligan: Sculpture, currently on display at Judish Fine Arts.

The show, which opened a couple of weeks ago, has generated a huge amount of positive word of mouth, so I was afraid I'd be disappointed when I finally got to see it last week. As it happened, I was knocked out by the impressive show -- and I expect you will be, too.

Culligan was born in 1972, grew up in Wheat Ridge and earned his sculpture degree from the University of Colorado's Denver campus in 1995, though he briefly attended the Art Students League in New York. His first important exhibit was a 1998 solo in the main space at Pirate; that show gained him instant status as one of the area's most talked-about up-and-coming young talents.

And things have been on the upswing for him ever since. Ron Judish, director of Judish Fine Arts, recognized Culligan's talent immediately and soon asked him to join the respected gallery's stable. Since 1999, Culligan's work has been seen at Judish in several group shows and in two solos, including this one.

Culligan's material of choice is stone, making Colorado a veritable treasure trove, an ideal place for him to live. "I travel to quarries all over Colorado looking for the right kind of stone," he says. "The quarries themselves are beautiful; some of them are at the top of the mountains. I select the stone, mostly remnants, and I bring the pieces back to my studio. Then I spend a lot of time with the stones and develop an intimate relationship with them. When I get around to making the sculptures, they are very much about the materials -- and I think they speak for themselves in this way."

The ready supply of stone is only part of Colorado's appeal. "I have a real affinity for the area," Culligan says. "If, as an artist, you can deal with having a great city to live in and the complacency that comes with that, then Denver's the place -- and at a certain point, you have to realize how lucky you are to be here." I'm happy he's here, too.

The show begins outside, in the gallery's forecourt. On a pedestal off to the right is Culligan's gigantic "Colid," a smart abstract construction. To create the piece, Culligan took a thick, squat slab of pink sandstone and paired it with a thin, sleek wedge of white marble. The two heavy chunks of stone are connected to one another with fabricated steel and cast-bronze fittings and hardware. One of Culligan's strengths is his successful exploitation of disparate colors, textures and tactile qualities of different materials, especially the rich array of native stone.

The two pieces of connected stone lean in the same direction, precariously perched and appearing ready to fall at any moment. But, in fact, they're held firmly in balance and hold the entire piece in place. "The two elements need each other to stay in balance; neither can exist without the other -- not just aesthetically, but physically. They literally need each other to exist together," Culligan explains, adding that this narrative component -- the necessary interaction of the two parts of "Colid" -- refers to humanity and makes his work neo-modern. "Modern work tends to be cold and unemotional," Culligan says, "and maybe I might say my work is modern, but I know it's different, because it's very emotional."

Proceeding inside the gallery, visitors will almost immediately come upon two additional balanced stone sculptures. Down the stairs and straight ahead is "Jayble," and in the space to the right, "Talis." Despite being indoors, these sculptures are every bit as big as "Colid," so getting them in place was quite a trick, according to Culligan.

"Jayble" is composed of a low rose-granite wedge juxtaposed with a tall rectilinear stile made of white marble and matching rose granite. Mounted on one side of the stile, at the points where it is made of granite, is a massive, U-shaped, cast-steel pipe that visually pierces the granite wedge. Although the two elements are roughly vertical instead of leaning over, as in "Colid," "Jayble" still looks as if it might fall over any minute. But Culligan notes that the physics of these pieces has been carefully engineered -- in spite of appearances to the contrary.

Engineering plays an essential role in the last of the three balanced rock sculptures on display at Judish. "Talis" is a dynamic composition that visually conveys the tension of gravitational forces as they work against one another. In it, a big slab of rose granite soars preposterously into the air, held in place by a semi-cylindrical, boulder-sized hunk of white marble. Handmade fixtures of steel and stainless steel connect the two pieces of stone.

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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