Art Review

Iron, Ceramics and Glass Are Hot in FIRED at the Arvada Center

For its fall offerings, the Arvada Center is hosting three shows connected not by style or theme, but in how the works included in each were made. The subjects of the three shows — unified under the banner of FIRED — are iron, ceramics and glass, with the iron having been forged in a foundry, the ceramics fired in a kiln, and the glass formed in a furnace. Using the process by which something has been made as the unifying element for an exhibit is an interesting and creative concept, but it’s good that each has been given its own set of spaces, because even if the three mediums are connected methodologically — or even intellectually — each follows a different course.

First up is FIRED: Iron, which fills the six galleries on the main floor. This ambitious show was curated by Arvada Center exhibition manager Collin Parson, who worked with the Western Cast Iron Art Alliance, a group of western-state university- and college-associated artists who advocate for the use of iron as an art material. As a result, many of the artists who were included in the show are also working in the West, including several in Colorado. This local focus is a standard feature of Arvada Center shows, at least since Parson took the reins several years ago.

In the entry gallery, Parson, with lots of guidance from WCIAA members, has set up an instructional display with the equipment and materials used to cast iron, including buckets of slag and coke, and a mannequin dressed in the safety gear needed to carry out the process. (Similar equipment and materials were put into action a couple of weeks ago when about 1,000 people came to watch iron being cast in a demonstration that was held near the center’s Sculpture Field by WCIAA members and students.)

The show proper starts off with a bang: the compelling conceptual wall installation “Audubon Drawing Room Wallpaper circa 1800s,” by Rian Kerrane. In this piece, which apes the look of wallpaper except for being three-dimensional instead of flat, Kerrane has employed not only iron, but also bronze, aluminum, steel and even pinhole photos. Identical sets of motifs in low relief are arranged in the same way into five vertical rows. Each of these rows is differentiated by a set of six vertical bars painted flat on the wall. Capping the verticals and running to just under the atrium’s windows is a horizontal frieze made up of scores of tiny birds that have been randomly arranged. The result is simultaneously contemporary and Victorian.

Contemporary and traditional themes are also mashed up in the work of Michael Brohman, displayed in the next space. In a piece such as “Baptism,” a male nude standing in a pan of water, or “Perfect Uncertainty,” two pairs of male legs connected by thick hanks of raw wool, Brohman takes a traditional approach to representation of the figure but adds a surrealistic twist. In “Baptism,” the man’s head has partly disintegrated; in “Perfect Uncertainty,” the legs are disturbingly disembodied.

Also delving into conceptual realism is Viviane Le Courtois, whose “Sheep (Moronity)” comprises 100 small iron sheep arranged on a low platform as though heading toward a monolith of AstroTurf, seemingly intending to graze. Dave Seiler uses two facsimiles of coconut cream pies — made of iron — to convey economic conditions; one is bright, thanks to its nickel plating, while the other is painted a dark shade.

“Cowboy Boots and Shoes,” by Laura Phelps Rogers, also uses familiar forms to express ideas; it consists of actual casts of a pair of cowboy boots and a pair of backless, open-toed mules. At first the pairing of the boots and shoes seems to be setting up a male-female dialogue, but based on the fact that both are for the same-sized foot, they may actually express the range of the artist’s personality.

Some artists in the show work in classic modern styles, notably Craig Robb, who is represented by a trio of wall pieces, two of which feature his signature style of using simple forms in a constructivist aesthetic. The pieces resemble non-objective still-life scenes mounted above and below delicate shelves. More expressionistic are the monumental pieces by Araan Schmidt, who uses casts of found forms combined to create abstract sculptures. His father, Julius Schmidt, takes a different course, using simple shapes piled up into complex formal arrangements; in “Untitled,” for instance, an architectonic tower incorporating vertical and horizontal elements is built up like haphazard brickwork.

Also exploring abstraction is David Lobdell, whose “Binary Mandala” consists of an elaborately pierced disk suspended inside a circular framework, with the whole thing finished in a gorgeous rust-like patina. Another wonderful surface technique is seen in the works by Kurt Dyrhaug, which have been painted with industrial enamels like a century-old machine. Dyrhaug’s forms also reflect that machine aesthetic, though in a completely abstract way.

The diversity of the material included in FIRED: Iron is both a strength and a weakness. Its strength comes from the many interesting things on view. But all of that disparate stuff, linked only by technique, means that the show lacks cohesion, which is its weakness.

In the upper galleries, Bebe Alexander, the Arvada Center’s ceramics-program coordinator, has curated FIRED: Ceramics. This exhibit also has a wide range of inclusions, but Alexander attempted to refine her choices beyond the firing aspect, so she limited her inclusions to slip-cast ceramics only. This decision may have been inspired by the similar method used for the iron works downstairs, though Alexander pointed out that the once-denigrated technique of slip-casting has lately been rehabilitated in the minds of ceramic artists. It did make me wonder, though, how those who throw on the wheel or slab-build their pieces feel about being excluded.

Alexander tapped one internationally famous artist, Richard Notkin, along with several notables from Colorado — an acknowledged center for ceramics — including Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, Tsehai Johnson and Jonathan Kaplan. Don’t miss the wonderful little vessels featuring inlaid color clays by Peter Pincus, or the ridiculous pop pieces by David Bogus, which include his grid of suitcases.

Beyond, in the Theater Gallery, is FIRED: Glass, organized by guest curator Marcela Fuller, who worked at the now shuttered Pismo Gallery, which had been a nationally renowned glass venue. Fuller took the opposite approach to Alexander’s: Instead of focusing on one technique, she covered the field with separate sections devoted to blown glass, cast glass, fused glass and furnace-worked glass.

Tapping local private collectors whom she knew from her time at Pismo, Fuller was able to include the work of some important internationally known glass artists, such as Dale Chihuly, Dante Marioni and Lino Tagliapietra. In addition, she made an effort to showcase the efforts of Colorado artists like Angelo Ambrosia, Helen Rudy and Jacqueline McKinny. “Drops of Memory,” a chandelier by McKinny, is a real eye-catcher. I don’t usually think of Colorado as having much of a glass scene, but with this show, I’m starting to reconsider that conclusion.

There’s a lot going on in the FIRED exhibits — not just because of the wild stylistic diversity the shows embrace, but also because of the sheer volume of the participants: nearly sixty artists. This makes the experience as exhausting as a marathon. If you’re up to the challenge, run through it before all but the glass exhibit comes down in a few weeks.

Through November 15 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200,

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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