Three artists go green at William Havu Gallery

The so-called green movement posits the idea that humanity could and should limit its impact on the planet. Oh, sure, a lot of it is little more than marketing hype; tract-house developers, for example, who have focused on paving the countryside can claim to be earth-friendly simply because the houses they've built have energy-efficient windows and trash compactors. But the green sensibility, especially the actions of sincere individuals, does have merit. (Conflict-of-interest note: I'm a tree-hugger of long standing.)

Recycling, the transformation of waste into reusable products, is among the most common-sense measures in the green-is-good crowd. In traditional recycling, glass bottles, newspapers and other things are gathered up and rendered back into raw materials through sorting, crushing and shredding. Then there's soft recycling, wherein found materials of every imaginable sort are reassembled and used essentially as they were found. It's this latter type that is popular among artists, going all the way back to the arte povera movement of the 1960s and '70s. And it's what links the three artists featured in the impressive Alchemy, now on view at the William Havu Gallery.

Typically, group exhibits are installed as conjoined solos at Havu, but for Alchemy, gallery director Bill Havu has mixed the work of three artists together. This approach results in a coherent, singular and very successful display, with each artist's work sprinkled throughout the first-floor spaces so that viewers may take in the three different points of view in a single glance. It looks fabulous.

I'll discuss Stan Meyer first, a distinguished Colorado artist who's been doing soft recycling for decades. Meyer employs tar paper that's meant to be used for roofs. His method is fairly elaborate. He begins by creating paper templates of the shape of the finished piece and cuts the tar paper to fit it. Then he paints the tar paper and sprinkles it with powdered pigments. He cuts the painted material into strips and then weaves the resulting pieces into simple geometric shapes. Finally, he mounts the woven forms onto hidden armatures that are ultimately hung on the walls or made into freestanding sculptures, though none of those are in this show. Meyer is descended from a family of Irish lace-makers, and his weaving refers back to that heritage.

Some of Meyer's pieces are simple in shape, even if the details are complicated. In "Full Circle" and "Study for Meander," the forms are essentially disks. Others are more complex. "Spicy Spires" looks like a rendition of flames or maybe even the head of an electric guitar, while "Circular Construct" consists of a closed circle surmounted by an open one.

Surely one of the great strengths of Meyer's pieces is his adventurous palette, which is made up of colors that glisten and are at times iridescent. The tar paper itself is black, which provides a marvelous ground for the toned-up shades. Also, since he weaves the strips of paper in and out, different hues are set side by side, over and over again — a very effective device, and one that produces a pleasing visual diversity.

Ann Weber, the second of the three artists highlighted in Alchemy, also uses prosaic materials, essentially cardboard and staples, to create her work. A few are made from bronze, though the castings are based on cardboard originals. Weber hails from California, and in the '80s, she studied with the great ceramic sculptor Viola Frey. Though she broke with Frey in terms of materials, Weber does overscaled renditions of recognizable things, just like her mentor. Weber has been showing at Havu for a couple of years, first coming to the attention of Denver art enthusiasts when she completed a commission for a public sculpture, "Promenade," which is installed at Skyline Park. It is a bronze cast from a cardboard form.

In Alchemy, Weber is represented by sixteen freestanding sculptures, most of them pretty large, and 25 small bas-relief sculptures that have been hung in a grid on the wall. All of the cardboard pieces are naturalistically colored, with the raw cardboard sealed with shiny and old-fashioned-looking shellac.

The single bronze, "Little Giant," has been finished with a rich brown patina, and since it's taken off one of the cardboard pieces, it coordinates beautifully with them. It's in the shape of an oversized gourd-inspired vessel, a classic ceramic form that perhaps reflects back to Weber's academic relationship with Frey. In fact, most of her pieces can be readily connected to traditional vessel shapes. That's certainly true for the works from her "Strange Fruit" series, which can be seen as fruit with stems, as suggested by the title, but which are also clearly related to vases, bottles and other containers, even though the shellacked cardboard could hardly be used to hold liquids.

A couple of pieces stand out because they are more thoroughly sculptural. "Tiny Dancer" has a more elaborate appearance, and instead of being a singular form, like the "Strange Fruit" pieces, it's a set of different shapes — a doughnut, a flattened oval, an eccentric star — vertically balanced in an asymmetrical way. "String of Pearls," a vertical spire made from a stack of bead-like shapes, has that same sense for sculptural form, but with the added appeal of being architectonic. And despite its being constructed from cardboard, it has a monumental solidity.

The final player in Alchemy is Marta Thoma, who is also from California. More than the other two artists, Thoma not only embraces soft recycling, but she's also inspired and motivated by the earth-friendly idea. In her artist's statement, she traces the origin of her idea of creating art through recycling: In 1991, she was in a program at the South San Francisco dump, where she was allowed to go through old rubbish looking for found materials to use in her work. After a rainfall, she noticed how a pile of discarded bottles "sparkled in the sunlight like diamonds."

The Thoma pieces in Alchemy are suspension sculptures made of steel rods that the artist has adorned with colored bottles. The rods are in a form that creates a three-dimensional scribble, mostly horizontally oriented. The bases of the bottles have been drilled so that the rods can pierce them and emerge from the bottles' necks. The bottles are strung along the rods and add an incredible sense of lightness, because the rods — the hard line against the space — disappear behind the sparkle.

"Meteor," which hangs high in Havu's double-height front space, contains a meandering line that loops into itself, terminating in whiplash curves. Toward the interior of the piece, Thoma has mounted clear bottles, and their icy appeal seems perfect given the subject matter. In other suspension works, including "Star Burst" and the over-the-top "Earth Tear in Blue," Thoma uses transparent blue and even purple bottles. There's an incredible visual richness to these pieces, as well as a sense of luxury, which is unexpected considering the humble material of the recycled bottles. This luxuriousness lends them the character of oversized pieces of jewelry, so Thoma's revelation at the dump, when she likened the bottles to gems, was definitely right on point.

"Alchemy" is a word that's often used for exhibition titles, and typically it has little or no relevance to the art on display. But the imaginary process by which alchemists were supposed to change lead into gold is not meaningless when it comes to this particular show, because Meyer, Weber and Thoma have done just that, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.

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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