Looking Up

Installation art, an aesthetic approach that uses space as one of its materials, dates back to the early twentieth century, but then it was a mere sidelight rather than the major art form it is today. Installation began to take off in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the rise of pop art, minimalism and conceptualism. That's when artists in Colorado first began to create homegrown installations. Off the top of my head, I can think of several from that era, including the late Bev Rosen, Jack Edwards and Chuck Parson, who dived in by creating room-sized (and even lot-sized) works of art.

From my perspective, installation's popularity peaked about a decade ago, but there's been a recent revival of interest in Denver and around the world. Good local evidence of this trend abounds, with several installation shows being presented over the past few months — most notably, the recently closed Peace Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the still-open Mary Ehrin and David Zimmer presentations at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, and Fang Lijun: Heads, which is the summer attraction at the Laboratory of Art and Ideas in Belmar.

Add to this list the handsome group installation show Looking Up at the Center for Visual Art, Metropolitan State College of Denver's exhibition venue. The exhibit was put together by interim director Jennifer Garner and assistant director Cecily Cullen, and they suspended everything from the ceiling so that viewers are forced to look up — hence the title.

Garner and Cullen chose four artists, three of whom work locally and one from the West Coast. Each was given a discrete space in which to display his or her pieces, creating a sequential experience as viewers proceed from one artist to the next. It makes sense to start with the gallery to the right of the information desk, follow the spaces to the back, then return to the front. So Jennifer Ghormley's "Fresh" comes first.

Ghormley is an emerging artist who graduated with a BFA from Metro in 2002, then went off to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to complete her MFA in 2006. She is currently in residency at the famous Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass.

Ghormley is mostly a printmaker — she specialized in printmaking throughout her academic career — but "Fresh" is composed of scores of smallish pieces of red organza folded origami-style into diamond shapes and hung by thread from the ceiling. According to Ghormley's artist statement, the piece involves her interest in corporeality, and the elements could be likened to blood cells. The heaviness of Ghormley's statement contrasts mightily with the lightness of both the materials — organza scraps and thread — and the visual experience of seeing it. Blood is not the imagery that came to my mind; instead, the elements read as a flock of birds heading to the back of the CVA, or maybe even a school of fish swimming in that direction. In other words, it's delightful.

Beyond the front gallery is the cluster of space given over to Anne Mudge. A California artist with a career stretching back to the 1980s (oddly enough, it was in 1988 that she had her Colorado debut in the North American Sculpture Show at Golden's Foothills Center), Mudge has built a national reputation with her oeuvre, which combines forms from nature, including the human body, with the detritus of an industrial society.

Mudge is interested in creating pieces that, according to her writings, "extend the force of their physical presence beyond their boundaries into the space beyond" — the very essence of installation art. Her work, often a tangle of wire accented with various materials, is mostly made of air, yet viewers automatically fill in the volume and weight in their minds' eye, giving each piece a sense of presence beyond its actuality.

In the marvelously luxurious "Pullus," made of stainless-steel wire, fiber, tape and thorns, Mudge created an abstract-expressionist scribble that floats in midair. More steadfastly formal, though still fairly expressionistic, is "Brim," which looks like an inverted wire umbrella.

It could be argued that Mudge's pieces are technically sculptures as opposed to installations; however, since the spaces between the tangled wire is as visually important as the wire itself, they do function as installations.

Also occupying the margins between sculpture and installation is "Cojones," by Lawrence Argent, one of Colorado's most respected artists. He is best known for "I See What You Mean," the big blue bear at the Colorado Convention Center, but he has done many other pieces around the metro area, including "Ghost Trolley," which was just unveiled last week on Colfax Avenue in old downtown Aurora (see Artbeat, page 50).

Argent grew up in Australia and received his degree in sculpture from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, earning an MFA at the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. In 1993 he moved to Colorado to teach at the University of Denver, where he is now the head of the sculpture department.

His suspension piece at the CVA has a visceral character owing to its blood-red color and the implication of the title, "Cojones," the Spanish word for testicles. The piece is made up of two solid ovals that hang together at the top but splay out from each other at the bottom. They are made of found street-sweeper brushes that Argent carved — no easy task when you consider the hardness of the material. "Cojones," which dates back to 1999, has been exhibited several times before, but it seems new in the context of Looking Up.

Denver artist Patrick Marold completes the quartet of cutting-edge talent with an unbelievably ambitious piece, "Arcweight," which took him two weeks to install. Using fine steel cables, Marold filled the three connecting galleries on the northwest side of the CVA, creating the suggestion of a series of enormous inverted arching forms. I say "suggestion" because the forms are merely outlined by the cables, and their mass is nothing other than the empty rooms. The specific curving shapes are created as a result of the effect of gravity as it pulls down on the cables. The cables are attached to the ceiling at each of their ends so that they gracefully — and symmetrically — flow in an arc toward the floor.

Marold has only been exhibiting his work in Colorado for the past few years, even though he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in industrial design nearly ten years ago. Between his academic career and his emergence as one of the most original and exciting sculptors in the region, he served as a production assistant to New Mexico architect Charles Ross and worked as a set-design intern at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

His background in industrial design, set design and architecture really shows up in his work: "Arcweight" has an industrial character because of its steel cables; there's a sense of its being a set that viewers act in and around; and the inverted arcs, which inevitably reference defined spaces, bring in the field of architecture. Let's not leave out engineering, either, because Marold always plays with physics; in this case it's gravity, but at other times it's light and wind.

It was unbelievably hot the afternoon I went to see Looking Up at the CVA, but somehow all that airy work, hovering above the ground, seemed to cool me off. Well, that and the marvelous central air conditioning.

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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