International affairs: Denver's art scene takes a new global view

More than at any time in my memory, Denver's art exhibition scene has taken a broad view, turning its collective sights on work from around the world. There's the tip of the hat to Egypt with the King Tut show; a look at England with the Henry Moore exhibit; and then, of course, the many shows associated with the Biennial of the Americas that focused on art from North, South and Central America.

Now add two sculpture shows to the mix: one focusing on the work of an Italian artist, the other on the recent efforts of a Japanese artist now based in Colorado. Interestingly, although they live a world apart, both use references to nature and natural processes to create their works.

Midway through its run is Maria Cristina Carlini: Works in Passage, an exhibit displayed at both the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and the Auraria campus in an unprecedented act of cooperation between the two institutions. The Carlini show was curated by Cortney Stell, director of RMCAD's Philip J. Steele Gallery and also the chief author of a handsome catalogue available there. Stell discovered Carlini's work while she was in Madrid last year and saw a show similar to the one she'd later help bring to Denver. While still in Spain, Stell contacted Anselmo Villata, the president of Italy's Instituto Nazionale d'Arte Contemporanea, which promotes contemporary Italian art around the world, and in a very short time she set up the show here, which is substantially sponsored by the Instituto.

Carlini trained to be a lawyer, but she discovered ceramics in middle age and radically changed her career path. Living in California in the early 1980s, she enrolled in a clay workshop at what was then called the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts). The display indoors at RMCAD's Rotunda Building includes several of her ceramic pieces, both stand-alone small sculptures and maquettes for the monumental works shown outdoors. There's a marvelous immediacy to Carlini's clay pieces, which are slab-built and finished in natural colors — in particular, varying shades of brown. Also in the Rotunda are a handful of paintings, some of which have attached clay tiles and all of which reflect the same abstract forms seen in the sculptures.

Outside, scattered around the beautiful RMCAD property with its series of small historic buildings — and its lovely historic flower beds — are four of Carlini's larger works. The campus was originally a sanatorium run by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society, and it's breathtaking, making the trip to Lakewood worthwhile just to walk around the grounds, whether or not the Carlinis are on view.

Carlini believes in making monuments that are moveable, which represents a break with the Italian tradition of permanently installing sculptures in some dedicated space. Given Carlini's concept, it's somewhat ironic that "Out and Inside" has been given to RMCAD and will remain there after the show comes down. "Out and Inside" is a Corten steel sculpture that takes the form of two serpentine shapes with wavy edges, like puzzle pieces. Though there's a passage between them, as you look at the piece, the opening is partially hidden. According to Stell, it's about the border between Israel and Gaza.

Carlini's aesthetic riffs on classic formalist modernism, in which abstract forms are assembled to create non-objective pieces, also have conceptual content. In "Icaro," rectilinear shapes in steel and mesh rise up and out from the base. "Isole" is like a two-part screen with ceramic panels set into the steel and with narrow straps reminiscent of stitching. The most unusual of the four pieces — and the least successful — is "Betulle," a steel stand and backdrop that encloses birch tree trunks cut flat on the top and bottom.

The portion of the show at Auraria includes three more monumental Carlinis, all of which are sited outside near the Emmanuel Gallery. "Granvia" is closely related to "Icaro" in that it combines sheets of steel and mesh in rectilinear shapes; "La Vittoria di Samotracia" is an abstract version of the "Winged Victory"; and "Madre" is a cracked globe. Like "Out and Inside," "Madre" will be staying in Colorado, as it's been given to Auraria for its permanent collection.

There's a nice resonance between the Carlini show and Yoshitomo Saito: All God's Children Got Rhythm at Rule Gallery — though the works in each are distinctly different, even if the two artists share an interest in metal sculpture. Where Carlini uses abstract shapes, Saito employs bronze casts of recognizable things — mostly twigs and blossoms — to create his pieces. Thus, though abstracted, Saito's creations are not genuinely abstract, but rather conceptual. Coincidentally, Saito, like Carlini, was at CCAC in the '80s, and that's where he earned his MFA. He began his formal art education at Jiyugakuen College in Tokyo, and over the years taught at various colleges and universities in this country before he moved to Colorado about five years ago.

The Rule show is very elegant, made up of Saito's expertly done floor-bound sculptures as well as his wall-mounted bas-relief pieces and installations. The show's subtitle — All God's Children Got Rhythm — comes from a bebop tune associated with the late Stan Getz; it also refers to a large, wall-mounted installation that's made up of scores of individual elements that have been arranged to take the form of a circle from which a horizontal line emerges off one end. "This wall installation is comprised of many small bronzes cast from natural elements," Saito has written. "Seeing the lively rhythm and sculptural gesture in each piece, I decided not to manipulate their forms after casting because each one was already articulate, poetic and original like a playful note for music." This taste for using the already existing details of the things he casts is seen throughout the show and in much of his earlier work, as well.

With the majority of the pieces here, Saito has taken twigs and branches and twisted or woven them into various shapes. For "When the Wind Stopped #10," he's created a tangle of twigs, with the result reminiscent of a tumbleweed. The piece represents a version of a series the artist began back in the '90s, making it a recent example of one of Saito's longest-running formal interests. Baskets and nets are also referred to in some of these works, including "Forest Cradle," which sits on the floor, and "Autumn Nest," which hangs from the wall.

The most powerful works in the show are from Saito's "Colorado Loop" series, in which he has bent twigs into spirals and then cast them in bronze. There are three of these, all gorgeous, but the largest one, "Colorado Loop #3," is by far the most striking. For this work, done last year, the thickest parts of the branches are at the floor, forming an ad hoc base that's integral to the sculpture. The thinner parts of the branches are at the top, with the thinnest bundled together. Though deceptively simple, the "Colorado Loop" pieces have a tremendous dynamism, tension and visual power.

Saito's bronze-casting skills are of the highest order, and he gets amazing detail from the pieces of wood and plants that he uses as his originals. His skill with patinas is also remarkable, and though he prefers the deep browns of traditional sculpture, he also uses verdigris, a blue-green shade, though he does so only sparingly.

All in all, it's safe to say that Saito is one of the top sculptors in the state, and since this is his first local solo in three years, it's well worth seeing. Traditionally, summer has been the off-season for the Denver art world — but that's decidedly not the case in 2010. All season long, there's been a dizzying array of art attractions, with Carlini's and Saito's compelling solos near the top of the heap.

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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