Russell Beardsley's sculptures, wall reliefs, mixed-media pieces and an installation are interspersed with Debra Goldman's photos and photo-constructions in the current show at the Mackey Gallery. Though there are few obvious similarities between Beardsley's Absence Reveals Presence and Goldman's Recordar, the exhibits are highly compatible in tone, perhaps the product of the artists' close personal relationship.

In Absence Reveals Presence, Beardsley proclaims his interest in minimalism, a pastime of his for the last several years. But unlike previous works, which focused on purely visual concerns, these new pieces contain narrative content. Beardsley's principal theme is the death of his brother Ronald from AIDS this past summer. Two pieces, "Absence Box #9" and "Absence Box #10," neither of which is for sale, are cenotaphs to Ronald. So, in many ways, is the entire series.

"#9" is a horizontal steel box that has been mounted on steel legs to bring it up to eye level. At one end is a peephole; looking through it, the viewer sees a dimly lit scene that includes two of Ronald's coffee mugs. It takes time to adjust to the darkness, since the interior is illuminated only by pinpoints of light that flow through a pierced pattern in the top of the box. And once one gets used to the darkness, it's still hard to make out many of the details. The effect is the same in "#10," except that the box is mounted close to the floor so that the viewer must kneel to peer in at Ronald's garden tools.

Beardsley says he plans to install these pieces--one of which he's presented to his mother--in an outdoor setting in order to allow the elements to affect them. "Rain will fill the mugs with water, the way Ronald filled them with coffee," he says. "It's meant to symbolize my brother's lasting presence."

Several smaller versions of the "Absence Boxes" are mounted on the gallery's walls; two of them, "#5" and "#6," reveal tiny paintings by Scott Greenig inside. The first seven pieces in the "Absence Box" series were executed in lead, and having worked with the hazardous metal long enough to have developed a mild case of lead poisoning, Beardsley says the boxes are the last things he will ever make with it. The final three boxes are made of steel and like their lead counterparts are finished with a low sheen that seems to absorb light.

Beardsley's more recent sculptures include four untitled floor pieces made of steel and fired clay that have been assembled into an installation in Mackey's small center room. These pieces hug the floor and, even more than the "Absence Box" sculptures, suggest death. Their forms conjure up both tombstones and the kneelers in church pews.

Beardsley's sculptures are difficult to appreciate, owing to their austere appearance as well as to the intense, personal--perhaps too personal--emotions the artist is trying to convey. Since the work is essentially conceptual, the viewer needs to go to some length to see what is going on, an effort that Beardsley apparently intends to be part of the experience.

More troublesome than the three-dimensional works are Beardsley's mixed-media collages, which have a transitional and unresolved character. Aside from the dark palette, the collages don't seem to relate to his other work in this show.

Like Beardsley, Goldman is also interested in recapturing a past loss. In her case, though, it's not the death of a loved one but rather a major change in her life. Goldman moved to Denver in 1993 after a decade in New York in order to teach photography at the University of Colorado's Denver campus. Her Recordar series is meant to embrace the expansive Western landscape as well as address her sense of loss for the life she left behind.

All the work included here is brand-new and marks the dramatic shift in artistic interests brought on by Goldman's change of scenery. When she lived in New York, Goldman made her photos exclusively in the studio, constructing scenes and then photographing them. Sometimes she would obscure her photographs with a scratched piece of opaque glass and then go in and shoot them again. In the works at Mackey, she shoots pictures of the newly discovered Western landscape and adds constructed elements later.

Each of Goldman's dozen pieces is a sequence of related photographs, displayed in a horizontal strip and depicting different views of the same place. Goldman previously worked with single images, but the scope of the Rocky Mountain landscape seemed to demand additional ones: According to Goldman, she "couldn't seem to get it all in a single shot."

In only one of these sequences are the individual panels truly photographs. And even in that one--"Testimony to a Place," which sports steel frames made by Beardsley--Goldman has altered the panels with ink and obscured them with nonglare glass. In all of the other pieces (many of which, like "May 23, 1995," are titled not according to where they were taken but when), the photos have been laid on thin sheets of wood and then covered in beeswax. Clearly, photography is only one of Goldman's mediums.

Goldman says her layering of materials is meant to convey the personal distance she feels from her own memories. She takes and reworks photographs in an attempt to visually capture "how memory might work"--and, she says, because she's interested in the way other senses like sight contribute to memory.

In our culture, photographs sometimes inappropriately become replacements for memory, notes Goldman. Her response is to try to create a more or less spiritual understanding of this human facility and, by altering the photos, to address the way photography, subjective as it is, affects our memories.

Before coming to town, Goldman built a coast-to-coast reputation in the red-hot realm of pointedly primitive and altered photographs. Since this is a field that has a lot of local practitioners, Goldman's relatively recent appearance is a particularly welcome event.

Sculptor Beardsley and photographer Goldman create highly individual work based on difficult passages in their own lives. Those efforts could easily stand alone, but the two artists have chosen to play off each other's melancholy in this somber joint show.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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