Visual Arts

Review: The Arvada Center takes a leap outside with Unbound: Sculpture in the Field

The Arvada Center is hosting four strong exhibits right now, all part of the Unbound series. But I will focus on just one here: Unbound: Sculpture in the Field. (I'll discuss the others later this summer.) The show is highly visible -- you can even catch a glimpse from the car -- and it represents a genuine expansion of the center's available art space.

The facility sits on a very large site, something that allowed exhibitions director Collin Parson to imagine using a small part of it -- a seventeen-acre field just to the south of the complex -- as a xeric sculpture garden. Given all that empty space, it's an obvious thing to do, but he's the first to pull it off since the center opened, in 1976.

See also: Unbound: Sculpture in the Field at the Arvada Center

It was about a year ago that Parson, together with the center's registrar and assistant curator, Kristin Bueb, started working on the project -- conceiving the show, readying the field, and arranging to have monumental works installed. Early on, the decision was made to partner with the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood, as that institution has made a specialty of placing large pieces of sculpture in various spots around metro Denver, and such technical expertise was very desirable.

Parson and Bueb then put together a list of sculptors they wanted to include and asked MOA director and founder Cynthia Madden Leitner to do the same. After merging their lists, they ended up with twenty artists. Five of them were unable to do it, which cut the number to fifteen, with most being represented in the show by two pieces.

As I looked over the field, I felt that the vast area in question could have definitely accommodated more work to better fill it up. But considering that this is the inaugural event for what's intended to be an ongoing series of outdoor shows, it's tough to be too critical of Parson and Bueb while they are still figuring out how best to use the space.

The experimental or pioneering quality of the show is reflected in the "walkway" that has been created simply by mowing the tall grasses and thistles to create a lane while leaving the rest of the site in its natural state. This informal path, which begins and ends at the gravel parking lot, leads viewers from one sculpture to the next, with each artist's display clearly separated from the others.

All of the work falls into either the abstract or conceptual-abstract categories, and in this way -- and in the case of some of the artists here, and even some of the particular pieces -- it's a response to last summer's spectacular Catalyst, at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which was put together by Lisa Eldred. The advantage for that show was that the DBG's beautiful plantings and water features accented the sculptures and installations, but the simple field at the Arvada Center has its own special appeal, and believe it or not, the acres of blooming bindweed there are actually gorgeous.

The center provides a map, which you can get inside, but the simple if meandering loop is easy to follow, and every piece is well marked with the title and the artist. If you've followed Colorado's contemporary sculpture scene for a while, this information is unnecessary: You'll instantly recognize the work of almost all of the artists involved, as they are some of the best-known sculptors in the area. And everything included is worth looking at, something that's not always true in a big show.

A few of the artists are represented by cycles of sculptures or installations. This includes Charles Parson, exhibition director Parson's dad, whose "Tintinnabulation" is made up of a group of separate vertical constructions that include sound elements. More signature-style for Parson senior is "Dual," on the opposite side of the path, a vertical shaft painted white and done in his signature high-tech style. The stark contrast it presents to the natural surroundings really works.

Nancy Lovendahl's "Fractal Echo" has the opposite effect, as the arcing shards of concrete emerging from the ground blend in visually with the grassy setting. Also very cool is Lovendahl's "Spiral Dance," which does stand out, but the fact that it reads like a lyrical blue-painted fence seems right, too. Carl Reed also likes to assemble separate elements to create a single piece, and that's the case with his "Kindred Spirits" and the showstopping "Braced Ring With Outlier," in which blocky carved stone elements are juxtaposed with bent and welded metal rods. Another artist working with multiple forms is Bill Vielehr, and as you come upon his part of the show, it's almost as though you're walking through a forest of scabrous aluminum columns.

Most of the sculptures are singular forms and vertical in orientation. Among the tallest pieces is Dave Mazza's "Achernar," in which he stacks steel rods and bars two stories high. It's fabulous. Kevin Robb is working along similar compositional lines in "Chop Sticks" and "Whimsical Dances," both made of steel. Formally, Vanessa Clarke's open triangle in various types of carved stone is related to the Robbs.

Truly sensational is Emmett Culligan's "Rubric #4," a tall spire built from alternating blocks of inflated steel and carved stone that was specially created for the show (as were many of the works by the other artists). It's texturally complex and formally simple, creating a marvelous tension. Also great are the two pieces by Erick C. Johnson, especially "Navigator," which, like the Culligan, is making its debut here. In this piece, Johnson builds a cluster of simple shapes to achieve a completely harmonious composition. Did I mention those simple but still monumental sculptures made of rods by Patrick Marold? The rusty one, "Serrated Crest," and the shiny one, "Prominence," both fit the landscape, each in its own particular -- and completely different -- way. The same is true for the pieces by Robert Mangold; the big "Tetrahedralhypersphere" is covered in a patina of rust, while "PTTSAAES" is painted red.

Among the more unusual pieces are the totemic Andy Libertone, "Upper Deco," and the truly strange constructivist forms done in white on gray tripod legs by Joe Riché; some may recall having seen these on display outside the Republic Plaza tower downtown. Andy Miller's "Cocoon" is also striking in its strangeness; it looks like some gigantic pod out of a science-fiction movie. Another very unusual piece is the monkey-bars-like form created by John Ferguson using metal rods and shiny metal sheets, all of it left in its natural color.

For the past six years, Parson has been running the exhibition program at the Arvada Center. In that time, he has shown himself to be a very imaginative and talented curator. He and Bueb have knocked it out of the park again with Unbound: Sculpture in the Field, not only because of the high quality of the show itself, but because of the way they found a brand-new place, literally in their own back yard, to effectively exhibit art. And I'll bet that field remains an important attraction for the Arvada Center for years to come. Unbound: Sculpture in the Field Through September 30, 2015, at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 303-898-7200,

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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

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