Art Review

Human|Nature Takes Sculpture Back to the Gardens

Emile-Antoine Bourdelle's “La Grande Pénélope.”
Emile-Antoine Bourdelle's “La Grande Pénélope.” Scott Dressel-Martin, courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens
The Denver Botanic Gardens maintains a regular schedule of exhibitions, including large shows on the breathtakingly beautiful grounds. Pieces are set picturesquely in and around the carefully tended plants, flowers, bushes and trees, in a formula that simply cannot fail. Lisa Eldred, the DBG’s director of exhibitions, has made a habit of showcasing classic modernism, like the unforgettable Henry Moore solo in 2010, or such cutting-edge contemporary as Mike Whiting's sculptures last year. But with the current presentation, she’s changing gears.

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.

click to enlarge “Benediction II,” by Jacques Lipchitz. - SCOTT DRESSEL-MARTIN, COURTESY OF DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
“Benediction II,” by Jacques Lipchitz.
Scott Dressel-Martin, courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens
There’s also a contingent of modernists, a couple of whom are renowned. In “Benediction II,” Jacques Lipchitz has reduced the female nude to a cluster of conventionalized volumes that vaguely refer to the human body. The sculpture was done in 1943, when Lipchitz was still at the height of his powers and the world was at war, a fact underscored by the title, which refers to a closing blessing. Placed on a stand surrounded by water in an extension of the Monet Pool, it's hands-down my favorite work in Human/Nature.

click to enlarge Joseph Csáky’s “La Sphinge." - SCOTT DRESSEL-MARTIN, COURTESY OF DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
Joseph Csáky’s “La Sphinge."
Scott Dressel-Martin, courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens
Displaying a similar attitude is Joseph Csáky’s “La Sphinge,” from 1950, a cubistic rendition of a seated nude, her head resting on her arms, meant to stand in for the Sphinx. Csáky uses flattened, elongated volumes that are gently curved to suggest the figure within. The sculpture is sited in front of a wall of flowing water, which effectively refers back to the sculpture’s flowing lines. Similar stylistically is “Infanta Margarita,” by Manolo Valdés, from 2005. Valdés has taken the silhouette shape of a Velázquez princess and rendered it in bulbous, smoothed-over blobs. It’s very monumental and presides over the amphitheater, at the top of one of the steep-faced berms.

click to enlarge “Infanta Margarita,” by Manolo Valdés. - SCOTT DRESSEL-MARTIN, COURTESY OF DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
“Infanta Margarita,” by Manolo Valdés.
Scott Dressel-Martin, courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens
A trio of pieces are thoroughly abstract and only barely suggest the human form. Beverly Pepper's modest “Bedford Sentinel II,” from 1990, is a stack of rough-finished blocky shapes; aside from the work's overall size and its vertical-to-horizontal proportions, it does not look like a figure at all. That’s even more true of the three heraldic stiles comprising “The Guardians” by Squire Broel, bumpy shields on vertical standards done in 2014. The best of this group of abstracts is Peter Ambrose’s “The Shadow of a Woman,” from 2006, a spire of sorts made up of intersecting and overlapping flat planes that gather in the middle. Its patina, one of the best in the show, is very striking: a dull, dark golden color with just enough sheen as the sunlight hits it.

click to enlarge “Lights,” by Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir. - SCOTT DRESSEL-MARTIN, COURTESY OF DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
“Lights,” by Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.
Scott Dressel-Martin, courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens
Only a few pieces could be called conceptual, including Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir’s “Lights.” This sculptural group from 2009 is an arrangement of fairly realistic standing figures, made of cast iron, that stare at the viewer through disturbing blank eyes. Each figure stands alone, alienated from the others. Placed elegantly in a field of tall grasses, this is a showstopper.

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,
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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