Sculpture takes center stage at the Botanic Gardens and MCA Denver

For every artist doing three-dimensional pieces in Colorado, there are a hundred more working in two dimensions. That makes a pair of current shows featuring sculpture and installations something special.

First up is Catalyst, an enchanting outdoor exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens that is chock-full of impressive sculptures. Catalyst was ably organized by Lisa Eldred, the director of exhibitions at the DBG, who took a "snapshot" of a slice of Colorado's contemporary sculpture scene as exemplified by a dozen of the state's best three-dimensional artists.

The grounds of the DBG, perfectly accented by the Victor Hornbein-designed conservatory, are the ideal place to display outdoor sculptures. There's plenty of room to accommodate the artwork: 23 acres covered in meandering paths lined with flowers, bushes, trees and all manner of landscaping. With this labyrinthine maze, many areas are obscured by the plantings, so it makes sense to get a map of Catalyst before setting off.



Through January 12 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York Street, 720-865-3500, botanicgardens.org.Through September 29 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.

The show begins out front with a marvelous Robert Mangold sculpture placed off to the south of the entrance. It's a red, tubular zigzagging pyramid that's meant to depict movement. Mangold has been interested in abstractly conveying movement, or the idea of it, for more than sixty years.

Once inside, visitors will come across the spectacular "Fumerole," by Linda Fleming, a clutch of laser-cut steel panels covered with whiplash motifs that have been powder-coated. The title refers to a steam vent, and the imagery suggests the flow of the vapor. Set near the conservatory's front door, the sculpture's light color works perfectly with the concrete-and-glass building.

Wandering through the grounds, I noticed that Eldred had chosen many water features as settings, placing pieces in ponds or pools or on their edges. The mirroring effect of the water doubles the impact of these works. Among the pieces that make the most of this characteristic is "Fractal Echo," by Nancy Lovendahl, which comprises a group of arching limestone shards arranged in a circle. The arc becomes a sphere with the added reflection in the shallow pool. Lovendahl is well known for her works that make reference to the earth and nature.

It is surely nature that also informs the three nearby pieces by James Surls, which are installed in another large pool. These dense tangles of metal rods evoke twigs, flowers and even snowflakes with their asymmetrically balanced radiating arms.

Carl Reed has created a sculptural group accenting a series of pools. "Ring With Outliers" is made with his signature found materials, but he's done something unusual by introducing color. Obscured by plantings, the group is striking as you turn a corner and it falls into focus.

One artist with a water-sited piece that does not riff on nature is Pard Morrison, who created a vertical shaft covered with hard-edged painted patterns. Despite these neo-modernist attributes, it has a totemic quality as it emerges from the pond.

Eldred also utilized rises in the topography, as with Patrick Marold's "Shadow Line: Fall Equinox." It's a straight row of pipes arranged like fence posts that interact with the sun, and it will resolve itself into a single line at the autumnal equinox, which occurs this Sunday.

Though nearly all of the artists refer to nature somehow, only a couple refer directly to plants, providing a subtle and elegant tip of the hat to their garden setting. Kim Dickey has installed one of her intriguing walls covered with ceramic leaves that reads like a hedge. Yoshitomo Saito creates what look at first sight like abstracts, but on closer examination are actually hyperrealist depictions of twigs.

Resembling giant game pieces that have been casually tossed on the ground are the three simple truncated cones of stone and steel from Emmett Culligan's "Crew" series.

Most of the artists are represented by signature works, but a couple have created unexpected pieces, notably the organic abstraction by Andy Miller and the funky neo-pop Maker's Mark bottles by Terry Maker.

I've walked through Catalyst twice and loved it both times. With fall approaching and the leaves about to turn, it's the ideal time to check it out.

The other three-dimensional show, John McEnroe: Beauty Does, at MCA Denver, is made up of an installation in the atrium that's suspended from the soaring ceiling and extends to the lower-level floor, and two galleries' worth of sculptures and photos (which McEnroe calls "pictures") up on the second floor. The handsome and intriguing display was organized by MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams.

McEnroe is a noted Denver sculptor — he could have easily been included in Catalyst — with several public commissions under his belt, none more infamous than "National Velvet," in the Platte Valley. This stack of red plastic sandbags has engendered a lot of racy comments from people who see either a penis or a stack of women's breasts when they look at it. (To me, if anthropomorphic referents are brought to mind, they are more on the order of tumors rather than the fun bits.)

There are some things in Beauty Does that connect up with "National Velvet," but most of what's included doesn't (other than the use of plastics, which is seen in most McEnroe pieces). The installation in the atrium, which also has the title "Beauty Does," is about conveying the idea of paint without supporting foundations — paint freed from the canvas as exemplified by pours of polymer. But other images also come to mind. Given the colors, ranging from buttercup yellow to Cheetos orange, and his use of grates as anchors at the top, I couldn't help but think of cheese. Others have round anchors and fall in cylinders reminiscent of women's stockings. Most of this installation was made on site, but one element was made beforehand in the studio, and that part — suspended plastic skeins held in place by fishing weights — reminds me of a chandelier.

The portions of the show that are upstairs include work that seems consistent with McEnroe's established vocabulary of plastics, like the wonderful "Black Tie" and "White Tie," in which wall-mounted slabs of resin have been embedded with ropes that spill onto the floor. Also classic McEnroe is the "Untitled" cluster of suspended blobs in the middle of one room. But some of the pieces are unexpected — and not just the photos. Anchoring each of the two galleries upstairs is a semi-funky, quasi-constructivist sculpture made of cut-up and reassembled found materials left in their found finishes. I may have seen this kind of thing before, but in Beauty Does, it seems to constitute a whole separate current in McEnroe's oeuvre.

Though Catalyst is set to run at the DBG through the end of the year, Beauty Does closes before the end of September.

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