Up in Lights

It was with the idea of "breaking the winter doldrums" that Emmanuel Gallery director Carol Keller organized the compelling installation exhibit Ed & Stan at Emmanuel.

Consider those doldrums broken.
The "Ed" of the show's title is sculptor R. Edward Lowe, and the "Stan" is photographer Standish Lawder. Though they may at first seem an odd couple, the artists share an interest in the effects of light, either projected or reflected. And though they're well-known enough locally to justify the use of nicknames in the title, neither typically shows in Denver. That makes the Emmanuel show a rare opportunity to see their work, and it shouldn't be missed.

For reasons that become clear as the exhibit proceeds, it makes the most sense to begin with the Lowe portion of the show, which has been installed mostly on the second floor but actually begins at the base of the staircase. Here the gorgeous granite sculpture "Thought in Stone" has been placed. It provides the perfect introduction to the Lowe section above, but that's not why it's been left on the main floor--it's just too heavy to get up the stairs.

"Thought in Stone" is a gray and speckled granite tablet set on a white base. The edges of the tablet are rough, but the surfaces have been polished to a shiny smoothness. Lowe has cut a series of curved holes into the granite that are not unlike the thought balloons from a cartoon. And that may be just what he had in mind, since according to Lowe, all of his work is about "the origin of consciousness." So even when he's working in a tradition-bound realm like stone sculpture, Lowe remains interested in conceptual art, a field in which thoughts are conveyed through visual effects.

The 48-year-old Lowe was born in Sterling, educated in Boulder, and for the last twenty years has lived in Denver. He has taught extensively, both at Metropolitan State College and in Europe, and earned a local reputation as a thought-provoking curator at the now-defunct Center for Idea Art, which in the 1980s was one of the most important Denver showcases for cutting-edge national and local art. The center, which was first located in the upper Larimer area and later moved to donated space at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, closed in 1987. It was during the 1980s that Lowe began to build an international reputation. His work has since been exhibited extensively in Germany and Denmark; today he's more popular there than he is at home.

Lowe has long been interested in using light as a component of his mostly three-dimensional work. "My work is like the images our mind makes," he says. "It's made up of ideas plus light." He's even become known for using holograms in his pieces; in fact, his half of the Ed & Stan show is billed as being made up of those laser-light-based pieces (which he first premiered at Emmanuel in 1978). In truth, there's only one hologram in the show, an untitled piece that's been hung from the ceiling. But in this case, one is all it takes.

The beautiful work consists of the metal frame of an umbrella hanging upside down in the skylight well of Emmanuel's loft space. Lowe has mounted Plexiglas panels in the shape of crescents on the umbrella's metal spines. Rainbow-hued holograms of clouds appear on the transparent plastic panels, which appear to be three-dimensional and ever-changing. In place of the umbrella's handle, Lowe has attached a freeze-dried rattlesnake. The odd list of ingredients comes together beautifully.

Lowe says the untitled hologram, which was inspired by a visit to Chaco Canyon, is about our "sense of loss." Over the years, he says, he's spent time in the canyon and noticed how its landscape has subtly changed: "I really began to understand that the canyon's landscape and its ancient architecture were threatened" by the inevitable erosion that takes place over time. In the Chaco Canyon piece, this feeling of loss is suggested not by crumbling cliffs but by the changing clouds.

Another Lowe piece--this one on the floor, not the ceiling--takes up the same subject. But the dismembered bird's wing that's been placed behind clear acrylic sheets in "Raven's Wing" is more literally evocative of loss than are the clouds of the Chaco Canyon work. The bird's wing of the title is leaning against a stack of three laminated acrylic forms that have been carved to look like stones. The acrylic, which would normally be transparent, has been made translucent through Lowe's having scratched and sanded the surface. The effect is fabulous; Lowe has achieved a luminous quality that outshines even onyx or alabaster, natural stones with a similar light-catching effect.

Lowe considers fire to be equally evocative of loss. It flares up but is eventually extinguished, he notes; plus, it has lost much of its meaning since the development of electricity. "The advent of the light bulb changed things forever," he says. To make the two fire-related pieces displayed at Emmanuel (they're half of a four-part series), Lowe took photos of flames outdoors in the Rio Grande Valley of northern New Mexico. "I used excelsior soaked in various flammable liquids, mounted them on a fence line and took nearly 300 shots to get the four I used," he recalls.

For "Passion & Pain," a large shot of a single lick of flame has been paired at the gallery with a black metal stand. The stand holds a glass lens that has been mirror-finished and as a result reflects its image onto the ceiling. The bowl-like lens is filled with bleached chicken wishbones--because, says Lowe, "passion and pain both begin with a wish."

The other fire-based piece, "Self," takes Lowe's topic of universal loss to a highly personal level: It refers to a serious head injury the artist suffered in a 1988 auto accident. "I would look down at my hands and not recognize them," he remembers, which explains why the piece features a lifelike human hand created by Denver sculptor John Andrea, a longtime friend of Lowe's. "It knocked my life out of whack for a period of time." Indeed, the accident's effects were so grave that Lowe considered giving up his art career. But as "Self" reveals, he had a change of heart. "I couldn't do anything else even if I wanted to," he admits.

Though many other contemporary artists also combine photography and sculpture to create installations, few have done so for as long as Lowe. And his signature approach effectively sets the stage for something completely different: Lawder's half of the Ed & Stan show, a stereoscopic installation titled "Mile-Hi Maiden."

Lawder, who became a part-time Denver resident fifteen years ago, has led several lives as an artist. Though trained as an art historian, he went on to teach filmmaking and film history at Yale and Harvard and at the University of California at San Diego, where the 61-year-old scholar remains a professor emeritus. In addition to his academic career, he made his own films in the 1960s and '70s, at which time he drew attention for his daring use of 3-D effects.

"I fell in love with the sensation of the stereoscopic technique," he says. But by the mid-1970s, Lawder felt that experimental filmmaking had run its course and so gave it up. Nonetheless, he remained interested in stereoscopy and began to create 3-D photos and projections. The unnerving "Mile-Hi Maiden," which fills the first floor at Emmanuel, is his latest offering.

In order to create this installation, a darkened space was needed. The solution at Emmanuel was to use heavy black curtains backed with particle board to enclose the space. The curtains form an ominous-looking black wall across the front of the main gallery.

Before entering the installation, viewers are given polarizing 3-D glasses provided by the gallery. They then enter through a dog-legged corridor that serves as a light trap. The corridor is lined with movie-theater-style footlights, which are necessary to guide us but also recall Lawder's film background. So does an accompanying soundtrack, which lays Italian opera over a piece by Denver composer Mark McCoin.

In front of us, a three-dimensional scene is projected onto a ten-by-ten-foot screen. The photos that form the background were taken from the roof of Lawder's Cheesman Park high-rise. In the foreground is Capitol Hill, in the mid-ground downtown Denver, with the Front Range in the background. But most of the view is of the sky, onto which Lawder projects 28 different images of a nude young woman that dissolve into one another. "The piece is continuous, with no beginning or end," he says.

The successful stereoscopic illusion of "Mile Hi Maiden" took no less than six slide projectors and a computer to create. And the kitschy result is visually stunning and unforgettable--even if it's hard to say what it actually means. It may also take a physical toll on viewers susceptible to eye strain--the main reason to see Lowe's efforts before viewing Lawder's.

The pairing of Lowe with Lawder in Ed & Stan at Emmanuel might be unexpected, since their work looks nothing alike. But as the exhibit unfolds, the viewer begins to understand how inspired a choice it was for gallery director Keller to pair them up. Obviously, she saw the light.

Ed & Stan at Emmanuel, through February 11 at the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria Campus, 556-8337.

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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