I'm a big fan of public art, and Denver has commissioned some standout pieces over the years that really spiff up the city. But sometimes things go awry when politics and civic bureaucracy meet the art world. While some of the people who serve on selection committees may have artistic qualifications, many more do not. Nor are there qualifications for private entities that wants to erect a piece in a public space.
As the saying goes, "everyone's a critic." Unfortunately, this sentiment reveals how less seriously art is taken than are other aspects of building. Below, in no particular order, are works that have bugged me since I first encountered them -- not only because they are bad but because they represent lost opportunities for something better. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below.
"A New Beginning," by Veryl Goodnight, 2011 History Colorado Center 1200 Broadway
From the outside, the elegant and contemporary History Colorado Center communicates a level of sophistication, one that was created by architect David Tryba. So there is very little warning that once visitors are inside they will be subjected to some of the dumbest exhibits ever mounted in this time zone. These goofy presentations, filled as they are with factory-made doodads designed by committees made up of out-of-state consultants, have failed to connect with many viewers.
But truth be told, there is an inkling of this on the outside, in the form of the two reactionary sculptures that have been placed there. The biggest eyesore is Veryl Goodnight's "A New Beginning," a gawky piece that looks like a cross between a mannequin and a figurine - and that's being kind. And how about those ugly poly-chromed patinas it's covered in! Well you could hardly expect good taste in art from a crew that couldn't figure out which side to take in the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit.
"Meeting of the Minds," by Douglas Kornfeld City Park Golf Course 2500 York Street
The two silhouettes that comprise "Meeting of the Minds" lack the three-dimensionality we expect from sculpture, something that could have only been achieved here through the placement of the two elements in relation to one another. The result is more like signage than sculpture - not really offensive, but not any good, either. One silhouette suggests the features of a white man, the other a black woman. The man's head is partly embedded in the earth while the woman's stands upright.
The message is clear: white men are descending in influence while black women are ascending in theirs. But the point becomes somewhat confounding when we discover that the artist, Douglas Kornfeld, is a white guy! Another unfortunate aspect of the piece is that it reveals just how hokey the early use of computerized design was (those patterns that fill in the profiles), even if it did tend to dazzle selection committees ten years ago -- as was apparently the case here.
"Light Chamber," by Dennis Oppenheim Denver Justice Center 490 West Colfax Avenue
Dennis Oppenheim's "Light Chamber" is a disappointment from as many perspectives as you'd like to consider. First, shouldn't a commission in front of the city's first new courthouse in nearly a century have been the work of a Denver artist? Second, if an internationally famous artist was chosen instead, as happened here, shouldn't we expect more than this mediocre, half-hearted effort? And third, given that it's one of the most expensive works of art ever acquired by the city - $1.2 million - shouldn't it be something special that catches everyone's eyes? (Imagine how many pieces by locals Bob Mangold or Emmett Culligan the city could have gotten for that kind of money.) A formless jumbled cluster of ill-proportioned metal rods with a tacked on "justice" theme, "Light Chamber" is hardly the kind of thing that made the late Oppenheim famous.
To understand what happened, you needed to be paying attention, as I was, when the decision was being made. Since the selection committee was dominated by the politically well-connected including representations of the courts, the DA, the jail, not to mention neighborhood boosters, there was little room left for art-savvy members. Thus they didn't privilege Denver artists; they may have had no idea that local talent even existed. This is why one of the best opportunities to enhance downtown with a major public sculpture - or a whole collection of sculptures - and to bolster the local art community at the same time was essentially thrown away.
"Ballerinas," by Ruth Keller Schweiss, 1997 Sheraton Denver Downtown 1550 Court Place
Perhaps the most skin-crawling example of art in a public place in the entire city is "Ballerinas," by Ruth Keller Schweiss. These figures are nothing more than cheap bits of kitsch masquerading as monumental sculpture. Even the materials are bogus with the various elements having been made using epoxy coated wire mesh, and not bronze as their color would suggest. The dancers are modeled as little more than stick-figures so much so that they could be used as a PSA warning against the dangers of anorexia.
But the dancers aren't just crude and ugly; they also remind us of one of the biggest failures of planning and leadership in the city's history. That's because "Ballerinas" is part of the ignoble legacy of Fred Kummer (rhymes with bummer) who destroyed an I.M. Pei complex -- Zeckendorf Plaza -- with lots of DURA money to help him do it. And then when he lost interest, he left these pieces of junk behind when he sold the place.
"Jurassic Leaves," by Mark Leese, 2006 Louisiana-Pearl Light Rail Station 755 East Louisiana Avenue
To get art-historical about it, the idea of creating a vegetal canopy at a rail station, as in "Jurassic Leaves," which sits at this light rail station, brings to mind the Paris Metro stops so exquisitely designed by Hector Guimard at the turn of the last century. Well, until you actually take a look at "Jurassic Leaves." At that point, you'll more readily think of the Flintstones or maybe even "Little Shop of Horrors." The crudely conceived and formally awkward leaf-forms, which are -- as the title implies -- gigantic, have been clumsily clustered to form a canopy over the staircase on the platform.
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The piece was built by JunoWorks, but don't blame the fabricator. The fault lies with the designer, Mark Leese, who is an architect and not a sculptor. In the-you've-got-to-be-kidding category, this monstrosity also won a 2006 Mayor's Design Award.