For Human|Nature: Figures From the Craig Ponzio Sculpture Collection, Eldred decided to display the work of artists who take a more traditional approach than previously featured ones, even if technically some are modernists and many are contemporary. Craig Ponzio, a businessman with a taste for both art collecting and philanthropy, serves on the board of trustees of the Denver Art Museum; after visiting his home near Evergreen, where Ponzio has created a private sculpture garden, Eldred came up with the idea of using only figural works for the current DBG show. (Ponzio has abstracts, too.)
As revealed by these selections, the Ponzio collection is an eccentric mix of approaches and artists. There are fairly straightforward depictions of the figure, though thankfully none done in gift-shop realism, the style that dominates the field. Nearly everything is in cast bronze, with the expected palette of browns to blacks. While these sculptures won't force viewers, many of whom are not art literate, to stretch their aesthetic sensibilities, as previous displays have, the show is still somewhat courageous on the DBG’s part, since there are quite a few depictions of the nude.
Only a handful of the artists are genuinely famous, and the majority are pretty obscure; of the seventeen artists, I was familiar with only about half a dozen. Clearly, Ponzio bought pieces according to his own eye and taste — not by collecting off a list of famous artists, the way so many collectors do — and there’s definitely something to be admired in that.
Without a doubt, the biggest name in the show belongs to Auguste Rodin, though his piece here, “Le Grande Muse de Whistler,” is just a study and a much later cast of the 1908 original. It depicts a weird seated woman, with truncated arms, in a tortuous pose: One bent leg and the other only partly modeled are draped over the rough-hewn boulder shape that serves as the sculpture's base. Formally, it has the distinctive minimal verisimilitude that is Rodin’s signature, placing him at the intersection of traditional and modern sculpture.
One of Rodin’s protégés, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, is represented by “La Grande Pénélope,” an impressive monumental figure of the mythological figure in a flowing gown. His treatment of the details of her face is more stylized than Rodin’s, and the sculpture looks almost like 1920s art deco, though it was actually done in 1912. While the more difficult Rodin occupies an obscure corner of the gardens, the more engaging Bourdelle has been placed on a plinth right at the entry, providing a great start to the show.
Rodin’s aesthetic and technical example was broadly followed by many of the artists here, but none surpass it. Eric Fischl was very self-conscious of his sources, trying to deconstruct them, when he created “The Weight” in 1996, with the awkwardly posed nude carrying the symbolic weight of Western Civilization on her back. It’s on the edge of the pool in the Japanese Garden, and looks perfect there.
The Denver Botanic Gardens is an ideal place to mount outdoor sculpture shows, with works set out in natural displays, separated from each other by greenery that creates autonomous spaces. It makes you wonder why Denver doesn't have a permanent sculpture garden of its own...but if we did, it would probably be sold off for housing and shopping centers.
Human|Nature, through September 15, Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York Street, 720-865-3500, botanicgardens.org.