Long-Term Commitments

Russell Beardsley emerged on the Denver art scene while still a student. The first shows of his conceptual metal sculptures were presented to both critical and popular acclaim in 1993, a year before he earned his BFA from the University of Colorado at Denver. Back then, his pieces most often took the form of handmade metal books with lead leaves; later he worked in a kind of constructivism, creating linear abstract sculptures, typically wall-hung, of lead, steel and wire.

Then in 1995, Beardsley began the series that would occupy his creative life for the next three years: the "Absence" boxes. Some of these steel pieces were large and freestanding, resembling water tanks; others were small, wall-mounted amorphous forms. The "Absence" boxes were intended as cenotaphs for Beardsley's older brother, who'd died of AIDS, but they also explored the impact of that death on Beardsley and the rest of his family. In all of the "Absence" boxes and other related pieces in the series, the inside of the individual sculptures, glimpsed through peepholes, becomes a visual effect as important as each work's outward appearance.

With his latest show, Seeds, now on display at Artyard, Beardsley reveals that his work has undergone a radical shift. Although he's already been all over the stylistic map during the half-dozen years he's exhibited around town--the lead books, the constructivist sculpture, the conceptual "Absence" boxes--never before has Beardsley integrated realistic figural elements into his sculptures. Even in those rare instances where he incorporated found objects, such as a coffee cup, that retained recognizable features, his work was exclusively abstract.

The style may be new, but in Seeds, as in the "Absence" series, Beardsley is looking at some of his closest relationships. The first piece in the Artyard show is the highly autobiographical "July 26, 1995," a lead, steel, bronze and mahogany sculpture that suggests the form of a rocking horse. "I was reminiscing about my childhood, so the piece is playful," says Beardsley. On a wide and flexible curving sheet of lead, he's set two thick mahogany boards facing each other. Mounted on the boards, parallel to the ground, are two cast-bronze arms that look as though they're about to grasp each other in a hearty handshake--but they're not. One arm has been cast using Beardsley's right arm as the model; the other, the right arm of his younger brother. The date in the title--July 26, 1995--is the day of his older brother's death, which created a rift with his younger brother. "That's why the hands never meet," explains Beardsley. "But we are connected by flesh and blood, and we've begun to resolve our differences."

"Seeds," an impressive installation that lends its name to the entire show, also takes on the topic of Beardsley's life. A narrow room has been lined by a score or so of paired arms, all cast in bronze from life, modeled after the real arms of Beardsley's friends and family members. The arms, outstretched with palms up, suggest the pose people take when they hold Beardsley's infant son. "All the people I used have helped with the baby," he says. The "Seeds" of the title, actual flax seeds chosen for their reddish-brown color, have been placed in the palms of the hands and spill out over the floor.

Over the years, Beardsley's sculptures have been shown at a number of the city's commercial galleries, most notably the Mackey Gallery, where he got his first big break. Beardsley's also had success in the prestigious arena of public institutions, including the Arvada Center, the Emmanuel Gallery and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Seeds is his third solo turn at Artyard, as well as the gallery's only exhibit this spring. "I don't have much planned for the summer," adds Peggy Mangold, director of the decades-old gallery, "but then it's going to get very busy." In the meantime, though, Beardsley's work provides plenty of food for thought.

From Artyard's spot on South Pearl, it's a quick trip to the William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, where Two Sculptors closes this weekend. And the connection between Beardsley and one of those sculptors, Lawrence Argent, is even more direct. Like Beardsley, Argent uses identifiable casts and focuses on autobiographical subject matter. But unlike the up-and-coming Beardsley, Argent is an old hand in the art world.

The English-born Argent was raised in Australia and came to Denver in 1994 to take over the sculpture department at the University of Denver. Almost immediately, he was hailed as one of the region's greatest talents in realms as varied as sculpture and painting, but he's best known as an installation artist. His 1995 ...of silent touching, at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and his Voyages installation at the Arvada Center the following year rank among the best art shows of the 1990s.

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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