Sticks and Stones

The landscape has served as both artistic inspiration and subject matter for thousands of years, dating back to Neolithic cave painting. And today the landscape's allure is just as strong, even if the pieces it inspires are often far from traditional.

Like landscape-driven art, Eight Ounce Fred, a funky little gallery on Broadway, is also evolving. Business partners and former restaurant workers Aron Bauman and Dea Webb opened the place as a retail shop in the summer of 1997. "We started out as a lamp store, with only one art show scheduled, and then it just took off," Bauman recalls.

Skin:Bone::Breath:Soul, a collection of Bonnie Ferrill's sculptures, is Eight Ounce Fred's largest, most fully fleshed-out show yet. It fills the front exhibition space and spills into the back room, which has been annexed as display space especially for this exhibit. Even with the additional room, Ferrill's pieces seem crowded--but the cramped surroundings help the show function as a sheltering, artistic thicket. That's because Ferrill finds not just inspiration in the environment; she also finds most of her materials there.

To enter the gallery, visitors must lower their heads and walk through "Passage," a tight gothic arch made of bundled twigs that's immediately inside the front door. Ferrill, who was born in Casper, Wyoming, and raised in Golden, started using twigs as art supplies when she became troubled by the chemical hazards of many other materials and techniques. "I wanted to create beautiful objects without negatively affecting the environment," she says. So she turned away from photography and welded metal sculpture--both mediums that produce substantial pollution--in favor of such non-polluting materials as hand-made paper, wax and twigs held together with natural twine.

Like "Passage," two of the most ambitious pieces, set side by side in the back room, are based on architectural forms. The tower-like "Chrysalis" consists of a vertical cone that's closed on top and internally lighted. The cone, made of spiraling twigs woven closed with paper, sits on a mound of tan and gray river rock. "Heart/h," which is based on a fireplace, also includes river rock, but it's used more sparingly. "The circle of stones are like a campfire," says Ferrill. Another standout is "Demeter's Breath," a horizontal wall-mounted piece that's essentially a big, dense bundle of tree branches wrapped in white paper with triangular folds. "Demeter's Breath" has an unexpected monumentality also seen in the much more intimate "Cradle," in which a wall-mounted branch catches stones and seedpods in its boughs.

Although nature is obviously the dominant theme here, Skin:Bone::Breath:Soul also refers specifically to the human figure. "I studied life drawing for many years, and my earlier work in sculpture and drawing was always figurative," says Ferrill. It still is: She points out that the wax-covered paper woven into some of the sculptures suggests "skin stretched over bones." Fortunately, this effect is far less creepy than it sounds. And overall, Ferrill has created a fine body of work.

Ferrill is not the only artist around to use twigs in sculpture, of course. In fact, local art audiences are as likely to encounter sculptures made from garden litter as they are to see the more expected work in bronze. In the intelligent, imaginative group show ...This Tiny Spaceship, This Planet Earth, which closes this weekend at Ron Judish Fine Arts, William Wylie is the one picking up the sticks.

Wylie, who teaches at Colorado State University, has created a site-specific installation titled "Cache La Poudre 2." The low, floor-bound piece, which comes out from the front window, consists of hundreds of twigs arranged in a curving pile. "The shape of the piece relates to the floor plan," says Ron Judish, the director of his namesake gallery. But the installation also formally suggests the debris seen on the banks of a river--in this case, the Cache La Poudre--and relates to Wylie's river-inspired photo project.

Judish has installed several Wylie photographs opposite "Cache La Poudre 2." "Untitled No. 42," a gelatin silver print, offers the outdoor version of his installation. Shooting from above, Wylie takes a close-up view of debris caught by an obstruction in the river's flow. The effect of moving water is again the subject of "Untitled No. 72," another gelatin silver print. In this photo, also taken from above, Wylie focuses on a swirling pool lined with rocks worn smooth by the water.

Wylie was the first artist Judish selected for this show, and the rest of the exhibit was built around him. "I'd wanted to do a landscape show for a long time, but I wanted to somehow avoid the pitfalls," says Judish. "On the one hand, I didn't want to include predictable and pedestrian landscape paintings, which are so common, but I also wanted to avoid the opposite problem--I didn't want the show to be too preachy or political, either. It's meant, as you can tell by the title, to address the demise of the landscape, but hopefully this theme doesn't overwhelm the visions of the individual artists."

Denver photographer Kevin O'Connell, whose work is related to Wylie's, was a natural for inclusion. "I'm dazzled by his technique," says Judish. "His photos are so exquisitely done, and this body of work fit perfectly with my intentions for the show."

In O'Connell's series of diminutive shots, all taken in Iowa and all capturing the ruins of bridges, the subject is the passage of time as recorded by the land in relation to water. In "Pier (#3)," an exquisitely toned platinum Palladium print, the crumbling stone bridge support is almost completely invisible, even though it's placed dead center in the picture. The manmade structure is camouflaged by the bare trees and shrubs that have grown up around it. In "Abutment (#2)," O'Connell makes a concrete pile look like an ancient temple, placing the prosaic ruin against the horizon. Despite their decrepit subjects, these photos are lovely. And in them, O'Connell makes it clear he believes the natural world will triumph over the artificial one.

California photographer Richard Misrach isn't as optimistic, as evidenced by the violently beautiful "Desert Fire," a Type C print of a stand of burning palm trees. In the foreground are sand and scrub; in the background, scorched stumps and flaming fronds. "Santa Barbara (Raft)," another Type C print, is set at sea. In the center of the photo, glimpsed at a great distance, is a raft filled with people and tethered to a boat whose hull is just visible at the bottom of the photo. The piece is haunting, and there's no mistaking the desperation it captures.

Misrach is one of several artists in the exhibit whose works are on loan from the David Floria Gallery outside Aspen. "David and I have been friends for twenty years," says Judish. Also from Floria's stable is Oklahoma-born Joe Andoe, who emerged in the 1980s as one of the country's premier Native American artists. Andoe, who now lives in New York, is represented here by two untitled paintings, one diamond-shaped, the other rectangular, both focusing on his characteristic subject of horses. In the diamond-shaped oil on canvas, the grazing horses are spotted at a distance from behind; in the rectangular one, more grazing horses, a white one in the center, are seen in a side view. In some ways, Andoe's works are traditional paintings of pastoral views, yet by fuzzing up the details and playing tricks with light, he gives them a contemporary edge.

Like Andoe, California artist Wade Hoefer, also on loan from David Floria, gives his landscapes incredible luminosity. The two sunset landscapes, both done in oil on canvas, are infused with a fabulous and eye-dazzling golden-reddish glow. In "Altaria I," two stands of trees are reflected in a river in the foreground; behind is an intensely lit western sky. "Opacus II" sets a single tree against the sky above, with its reflection in the river below. Hoefer's style is a hybrid of abstraction and representation, the two opposing tendencies checking one another in a precarious balance.

Two more artists in ...This Tiny Spaceship relate only obliquely to the environmental theme through prints that incorporate found imagery. The single photo-lithograph "Latitude," by Chicago artist Buzz Spector, is a landscape constructed from a horizontal lineup of antique postcards depicting the same latitude around the world. The multi-leaf "Über Dresden," a series of photo-lithographs by New Yorker Lawrence Gipe, reproduces a group of U.S. military reconnaissance photos, complete with dirigible, of the soon-to-be destroyed German city. (These prints and others in the show were loaned by Segura Publishing of Tempe, Arizona, a nationally known print atelier.)

The potential for landscape-inspired art, like the landscape itself, stretches further then the eye can see. But both Skin:Bone::Breath:Soul and ...This Tiny Spaceship, This Planet Earth make for scenic views along the way.

Skin:Bone::Breath:Soul, through April 18 at Eight Ounce Fred, 26 Broadway, 303-744-9659.

...This Tiny Spaceship, This Planet Earth, through March 27 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5556.

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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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