Fans of sophisticated contemporary sculpture will be delighted with the array of styles and media on display at Foothills Art Center. The 16th Annual North American Sculpture Exhibition fills the space with bronze, steel, wood, glass, ceramics and found objects, all material elements of 76 sculptural works from 66 artists.

Viewers accustomed to the massive, smooth strength of traditional bronzes will be surprised at the airy delicacy of Frances Bagley's unusual trompe l'oeil works. Bagley first constructs basketry-based forms using wood, rattan and nails, then casts these in bronze. The resulting hybrids have the durability and weight of bronze but with the natural detail of woven materials. The artist's high, paired "Vessel Figures" hint at torso shapes, but the see-through, out-of-kilter columns are far removed from the heavy, anatomical bronze torso forms so familiar to museumgoers. In her artist's statement, Bagley says she believes the most important aspect of these remarkable pieces may be the negative space they enclose--perhaps symbolic of an empty, meditative space within the humans they're roughly modeled after.

Another fascinating entry in the category of bronze sculptures are A. E. Ted Aub's oddly bulky, Magritte-like forms. Reminiscent of huge stone Mayan heads found in jungle ruins, Aub's dapper, derby-topped heads and other spherical objects employ a generic modernity to make their point. Without bodies to give them implied functions, the roly-poly heads take on an abstract quality that allows them to be more than mere body parts--they become puzzle pieces (the separate head, apple and derby of "Mada Mim Adam" fit neatly inside one another) or totemic building blocks (like the twin-chapeauxed heads Aub calls "Mano a Mano." Filled with hunky presence, Aub's work seems to suggest that humans themselves may be interchangeable.

Nonbronze sculptures are distinguished here by excellent craftsmanship and shrewd use of traditional and offbeat materials. Duncan Johnson's intricate wooden structures beautifully incorporate coarse textures and smooth finishes within the same piece. Johnson's sleek ovoids and curving rectilinear forms are actually countless distinct layers of laminated wooden pieces, a mesmerizing variety of dowels, screws, flat pieces and openwork melded into a single elegant form. A multitude of walnut-and-honey-stained struts, pegs, jigs and lathing strips unite to make Johnson's "Roma" an engineered shape as complicated and potentially explosive as a miniature city. Johnson's canoe-shaped canvas-and-wood piece called "River," with its drumlike configuration and fiddle-peg parts, hangs in delicate suspension like something a mad violin maker might construct. Both sculptures astonish with their obsessive workmanship and endless variation.

Other notable mixed-media sculptures include Erich Hill's "Charmed Quark," a primary-colored toy-tangle of lighted cubes, curved wooden lath and skinny plastic tubes, all suspended from the ceiling in happy, abstract imitation of the movement of atomic particles. Chaden Halfhill's Egyptian-inspired sarcophagi ("Deception" and "Forbidden Fruit") bring the bluntness of cement and rope to the material mix of the show; Halfhill's small-scale installations are so cutting-edge they almost ring a false note in this tasteful collection. And Deborah Morris's felt-and-resin "Goddess" wraps things up with a different kind of package--an invisible woman. The too-tall shape of a strapless gown becomes the figure of the goddess, present only as the white, stiffened dress.

Though the empty dignity of "Goddess" is humorous in a way, this relatively serious exhibition includes several pieces that are strictly for laughs. Alexander Armatas's "Oil Painting" is an imposing framed canvas holding many oversize Pyrex tubes of golden cooking oil. Richard Burrows's hilarious ceramic "Lawyer Machine" is a mechanical marvel that's a unique take on Shakespeare's advice to "kill all the lawyers." And Robert Hewitt's Duchampesque "Fork in a Box" contains everything the viewer needs to construct a huge, multijointed mechanical fork suitable for spearing Godzilla.

Though relentlessly (and handsomely) mainstream, this slice of today's sculptural styles has strength and beauty galore.

The 16th Annual North American Sculpture Exhibition, through June 19 at Foothills Art Center, 15th and Washington, Golden, 279-3922.

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Hart Hill