Six for Eight

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Japanese delegates might enjoy a drive through the Hilltop, Belcaro and Crestmoor neighborhoods, where for decades armies of Japanese gardeners have tortured evergreens into magnificent sakai, the outdoor version of bonsai. The Denver Botanic Gardens also features Japanese landscaping around its traditional teahouse. But perhaps the best example of the Japanese influence in Denver is the engaging formalist-style Colorado National Bank Tower of 1972, by Japanese-born American architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building, at 950 17th Street, has recently been sold, and owing to the ravages of nature, the concrete piers are currently being stripped of their marble cladding, which had begun to spall. With any luck, the building will be restored to its former glory shortly.

Thanks to a wave of recent immigrants, Yeltsin should have no trouble finding a banya while he's in town. Unfortunately, though, the best place to see the Russian influence in Denver is probably over at the former Lowry Air Force Base. What with the Cold War over, the base is now being redeveloped, an indication of how the perceived Russian threat has dwindled in recent years. Too bad the PCBs in the groundwater won't go away as quickly.

Whether the delegates will actually take the time to ponder how their respective cultures have affected Denver is questionable, of course. Their free time might better be spent seeing something uniquely American. Touring the public art erected by the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb with the help of First Lady and arts maven Wilma would be a mistake, since it's a bunch of junk. But there is one recently completed public-art project--"Platte Valley Time Vanes," by David Griggs, on the 23rd Street Viaduct--that's worth looking at.

The piece comprises six sculptural elements that have been placed as finials on top of the piers that support the bridge. Four are located at the Coors Field end of the viaduct--two on 23rd Street, two on 22nd Street--and the last two at the 1-25 end of the bridge. The commission was worth $195,000, and it's a shame there wasn't more money, because the viaduct could take another six of these sculptures, maybe even eight.

Griggs's theme is a play on the concept of weather vanes. The weather vane reveals the way the wind blows, the time vane the flow of the times. Each of the sculptures, he says, refers "to the history of the Platte Valley and the people who moved through it."

The valley has long been a center for transportation in Denver, and the idea of movement--in this case the movement of time--is a signature interest for Griggs. "My preoccupation with transportation is practically genetic," he says. "My grandfather ran a railroad, my father an airline, and my brother a ferry."

Given these biographical facts, it's interesting to note that the spectacular "Dual Meridian," Griggs's as-yet unsurpassed masterpiece, is located at Denver International Airport. "Dual Meridian" was unveiled in 1994 to career-establishing acclaim, which surely helped Griggs garner the "Time Vanes" commission as well as others in New Mexico and Alaska.

But Griggs, who came to Denver from Minneapolis in 1979 after an aborted career as a psychologist, is no local art upstart, even if "Dual Meridian" was his first fully developed piece. He's been exhibiting installations locally since 1982, when he created "Betty Boop/Condo Condo" while still a student at CU-Boulder, where he later received his MFA.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that Griggs began to create installations that anticipated such mature work as "Dual Meridian" and the "Time Vanes." But his early pieces were constructed of insubstantial materials like paper and masonite, so they lacked one of the most appealing aspects of his more recent work--solidity. The "Time Vanes" are made of painted steel, some with copper. Fabricated by Denver's Zimmerman Metals, they weigh from 7,000 to 11,000 pounds each. And they look weighty, too.

Four of the six "Time Vanes," all of which have been given nicknames, refer to specific periods over the last one hundred years. On 23rd Street are "Native American," which looks like the silhouettes of three tepees, and "Railroad," which looks like a bridge truss with a smokestack in the center and cowcatchers around the base. "Native American," says Griggs, refers to the Indian encampments that would have occupied the Platte Valley in the 1850s. "Railroad" looks back to the early part of this century, when 100 trains a day went through Union Station.

The two sculptures on 22nd Street take us up to the present. The early twentieth century is represented by the pieces nicknamed "Tree Flame" and "Future Spiral." In "Tree Flame," Griggs has placed a copper silhouette of a bush in the center of a sphere. "It's about Mayor Speer," Griggs says, referring to the legendary Denver pol's "City Beautiful" campaign. "Future Spiral" looks to the 21st century with a spiral of ever-opening satellite dishes.

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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