Separate Ways

I've been pretty tough on Jerry Gilmore, chief curator and director of the art program at the Arvada Center, because he seemed to model his behavior on that of the proverbial bull in a china shop. Soon after he took over a few years ago, for example, longtime staff members Rudi Cerri and Susan Sagara Bolton were forced out -- much to the consternation of longtime supporters and volunteers.

But today, with a crack new staff in place, things have obviously settled down. And, reluctant as I am to do so, I'm going to say something good about Gilmore: He made two smart calls booking the pair of solos that now occupy separate floors at the center. In the capacious spaces that make up the Lower Galleries, there's Charles Parson: Landscape's Sonnet; in the large rooms of the Upper Galleries, it's Emilio Lobato: Candela: Slow Burn.

I've called Chuck Parson the hardest-working man in the art-show business, and Landscape's Sonnet proves he's earned that title. The show includes a staggering number of drawings, wall-relief panels, sculptures and installations; unbelievably, Parson was able to fill the nearly 7,000 square feet of space in the Lower Galleries to absolute capacity, and he did it with creations from just the last year or so. Since this involves a mind-blowing amount of labor, you'd think that Parson must be in the studio 'round the clock. But he's clearly not, because he does so many other things: He teaches at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, works as a contract mural painter at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and even picks up odd jobs doing signs.

Parson has been an artist since his childhood in Fort Pierce, Florida, and when he was still a kid, he studied traditional landscape painting at the A. E. Backus Studio. He received his BFA degree at the renowned Kansas City Art Institute in 1970, and his MFA from Michigan's legendary Cranbrook Academy in 1972. After graduation, he got a job teaching in a school in nearby Flint. Then, on a whim, in 1973 or '74 -- he doesn't remember which -- he moved to Colorado, and though he travels widely, he's basically been here ever since. His first show in Denver was in 1974 at the Scene Gallery, essentially the lobby of the now-defunct Changing Scene theater downtown. Since then, his work has been exhibited at the most prestigious venues in the region, including the Denver Art Museum, and in galleries, art centers and museums from coast to coast. His pieces are also currently on display in the sculpture garden at Artyard, a Denver gallery that has represented Parson since the early '90s.

Landscape's Sonnet sort of begins outside the Arvada Center -- I say "sort of," because the two Parson pieces installed on the grounds are not technically part of the show. "Earthgate," a monumental construction, is on the Wadsworth Boulevard lawn; the somewhat smaller though still fairly large "Structural Underbelly" stands in a median near the center's entrance. These works, made principally of steel, cogently lay out Parson's aesthetic strategy. He's a constructivist, and rigidly horizontal and vertical elements are his lingua franca, with diagonal lines typically downplayed even if they're occasionally necessary for structural reasons. Parson says the horizontals and verticals are inspired by the Western landscape, allowing him to view his style as a kind of regionalism. Although that's a stretch, his contention that he's primarily interested in connections between humanity and the landscape is more convincing, what with his lavish and conspicuous use of chrome-plated nuts and bolts to hold the pieces together.

The show really gets under way inside, in the Lower Galleries, with dozens of drawings, many bas-relief panels and a group of freestanding sculptures. The drawings separate into two distinct categories: geometric abstractions and traditional landscapes. The bas-relief panels, which Parson calls "dimensional drawings," represent an intermediate type of work that falls between the geometric drawings and the sculptures; for these, he arranges plastic, metal and wire in compositions that have a predominant horizontal orientation and are hieratic, with the center emphasized.

The geometric abstractions and the stylistically similar "dimensional drawings" provide a perfect setup for the freestanding sculptures, all of which are untitled. The imagery is clearly architectonic. Parson is very interested in buildings and bridges and uses materials common to such construction -- in particular, ready-made steel beams that have been cut to size and then painted in monochromes, most often white, sometimes black. As counterpoints, he adds chunks of white marble to some, and plastic -- either transparent or translucent, occasionally fluorescent green -- to others. The plastic accents glow under the gallery lights and appear to be internally illuminated, but they're not.

All of these drawings, bas-relief panels and sculptures would be enough for a regular solo, but here they're almost incidental to the several enormous installations that dominate the exhibit. There's an astounding consistency to Parson's oeuvre. The geometric drawings are extensions of his straightforward landscapes. The wall sculptures are derived from the geometric drawings. The floor sculptures arise out of the "dimensional drawings." And finally, the installations are outgrowths of the sculptures.

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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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