Art

LIFE'S A BEACH

Denver has no better showcase for sculpture than Artyard, the outdoor gallery on South Pearl Street. The landscaped, paved and fenced garden area is ideal for showing large, durable pieces, and each work gets ample room to make its statement, with only the sky to limit scale. And the intimate indoor gallery--ever the chic accessory--makes the viewing of smaller-scale works a congenial, if intense, experience. Both of these spaces function like well-oiled machinery with the current Artyard exhibition, West Coast Sculpture.

This contemporary artwork visiting from the Pacific states brings sunshine-fresh viewpoints to Artyard's best season, undeniably summer. Participating artists used a list of diverse materials that almost sounds like a description of a California beach: undulating sand, driftwood, bronze bodies, bubbling water, Day-glo colors and plastic dollies. The resulting luminous display finds classical renditions of the figure with a postmodern twist frolicking alongside funky found-object pastiches. Though most of this work fits comfortably (and unremarkably) into the mainstream, some is extraordinary.

The most spectacular effect, despite the work's diminutive scale, emanates from Richard Godfrey's light and water sculpture, "Alba." An unearthly meditation on color and light (the pivotal geometric object is white, but hidden lighting makes it appear Day-glo purple), this miniature space needle seems to hover weightlessly on its pointy tip. Poised against a universe-black backdrop, numerous ribbons of water stream down from "Alba"'s central ring. At a distance, this awesome trinket looks like an atomic bomb frozen in mid-explosion; up close, the exquisite modeling changes that image, making the piece seem like something found in a formal garden on, say, Neptune.

Another kind of spectacle is generated by Tanya Ragir's sculptures of female body parts. Ragir makes curvy clay building blocks out of isolated sections of the female figure. These provocative "bricks," which are cast in resin or bronze, are stacked into towers or mounted on pedestals. Realistic in depiction but abstract in content, the sculptures at first seem to invite us to contemplate these body parts for their pure form and beauty, divorced from their organic sources. But don't be fooled: Ragir's work is filled with political comment and subtle emotion. And while the surgical truncating of human bodies for art can be offensive and subtly prurient, as so many treasured museum torsos demonstrate, her pieces are far more complex than run-of-the-mill classical nudes.

The twelve-foot-tall "Trinity Totem III," for example, blows up breast, waist and nape to gigantic proportions; the squarish chunks are then stacked up like a chubby totem pole. Yes, she's built like a brick house, but "Trinity"'s wit goes deeper than that--the inflated scale may be a satirical jab at the weighty obsession with female body parts that preoccupies so much modern art.

Another Ragir sculpture, "Inside Out," subverts the thrust of figural art by portraying the underside of a body part, a segment of negative space left by the impression of buttocks and crotch. Covered with loose white sand, this two-piece sculpture compares the female form to the rippling shapes of sand dunes, but the miniaturized treatment (the paired, contoured surfaces are built into matching resin tabletops) uncovers disparaging attitudes hidden in such romantic depictions.

The champion de-romanticizer of figural imagery here, though, is Nobuyo Okuda, whose "Humans" embraces a bitter vision of its title subject. Part of a much larger installation not shown here, these two cadaver-size spools made of barbed wire tumble helplessly over each other like prickly steel mummies. At first resembling something dumped carelessly at a junkyard, closer study reveals the eerily human likenesses suggested by the wire's cyclonelike whorls. Bleak but powerful, "Humans" presents a metaphor for the collective inability of people to touch one another without risking pain.

West Coast Sculpture offers viewers an open-air showcase for current coastal art trends and a chance to enjoy Artyard's Mile High charms. Don't forget your sunscreen.

West Coast Sculpture, through August 8 at Artyard, 1251 South Pearl Street, 777-3219.

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Hart Hill