Landscape As Metaphor, a show originally intended as a celebration of site-specific art, opens Saturday at the Denver Art Museum after more than two years of planning and construction. Such international talents as Judy Pfaff, Ursula Von Rydingsvard and Ed Ruscha scouted out locations in and around the museum in order to design art for those spots. Curated by Martin Friedman for the DAM and the Columbus Museum of Art, the exhibition at one point was meant to play up the unity between the grounds of the central library and the museum.

Site-specific art is perhaps the most difficult of all contemporary genres, partially because it requires the site itself to supply some meaning to the work. This delicate interplay between place and art is enormously difficult to achieve, and many artists are too style-bound to respond effectively to the challenge. Most of the Metaphor artists downplay the importance of their chosen sites, opting instead to make trademark works that could be installed in any museum, gallery or public building.

Though disappointing, the shift of emphasis from site-specific art to theme art--that which is centered on the idea of landscape--and its poetry still brings the museum some of its most exciting work ever. Surely the most commanding is James Turrell's "Trace Elements," a light sculpture exuding such visual magnetism that viewers may believe they've died and gone to heaven. The spacious gallery housing the sculpture is so completely darkened that objects can barely be distinguished, and it terminates in a large, glowing rectangle resembling a stage or the field of a modernist painting. Given time, the adjustments viewers make to the darkness reveal more and more of the rectangle's color and diversity. The act of approaching the light through the tunnel-like darkness of the gallery simulates a near-death experience, with all its unsettling effect. Getting closer only furthers the illusion--this otherworldly piece seems to have no end. Mel Chin takes a more object-oriented approach to the landscape metaphor. Calling his installation "Spirit," Chin gathered endangered prairie grasses (with government permission), weaving them into a scorched rope that he stretches across the length of a gallery whose bulging walls seem ready to burst. Balanced on this taut symbol of nature-about-to-snap sits a huge barrel crafted from white oak and steel. Chin's suggestion that man's insatiable needs are destroying the delicate balance of nature is unmistakable.

Judy Pfaff chose the roof of the museum to install one of her highly recognizable sculptural installations, a frazzled-wire-and-found-object construction called "Cielo" (Spanish for "sky"). But the oversize dimensions of the roof and Colorado's weather subsequently forced the artist to respond to her site. Pfaff and her assistants worked against time during a typically capricious Denver spring, carrying hot tar up from the street (fire officials wouldn't allow tar-heating equipment on the roof) and attempting some form of closure to the composition, which, without a ceiling to enclose it, seemed out of control. The results, full of compressed danger and hair-raising effects, still carry Pfaff's inimitable stamp, but with an added sense of frantic improvisation that empowers the piece.

With the exception of Pfaff's heroic tap dance, only Martin Puryear's wonderful, raw outdoor sculpture in Civic Center Park truly uses its woodsy site--within yards of Denver's courthouse--to amplify the artist's statement. You may have driven by this untitled piece, which consists of a Colorado cherry tree hung upside down and chained from a support that resembles a crude, massive gibbet, without noticing its darker implications. Surrounding his sculpture with living trees in a natural setting, the artist, who is African-American, makes a sad and subtle comment about the scales of justice and the land of the free.

A rewarding and prestigious collection, even without the impact of site specificity, Landscape As Metaphor uses visual poetry to comment on our expansive Western vistas. It is without a doubt one of the best art exhibitions ever mounted in Denver.

Landscape As Metaphor, through September 11 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2933.

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Hart Hill