Crossing representational imagery with conceptualism is a well-established current in contemporary art, and it runs through a pair of major solos on view right now.
The first floor of the William Havu Gallery has been reconfigured as a huge two-story room and given over to well-known Colorado artist Yoshitomo Saito, who creates hyper-realistic depictions of natural materials that he assembles in unexpected ways. The spectacular result is Yoshitomo Saito: Woven, a mammoth, museum-quality show of meticulously done bronzes. The Saito solo is breathtaking for its beauty as well as its ambition, which was evident as soon as I walked through Havu’s front doors, as I could essentially take in the whole show in one glance.
Born in Tokyo, Saito was a glass artist before he came to the United States in the 1980s to study at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. He went on to attend the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he studied with, among others, Linda Fleming, a part-time Colorado resident. While in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1990s and early 2000s, Saito made the switch from glass to bronze and became a significant sculptor, exhibiting internationally. Looking for a less expensive place to live, he moved to Colorado in 2006. For many years he’s maintained an outdoor foundry at Ironton, where the work in the Havu show was created.
One of the first pieces that catches the eye — both for its size and its complexity — is “1000 Prayers,” a wall installation made up of 670 individual bronze casts that flow over the wall, rising way overhead. Each of these casts is an unbelievably realistic rendering of a pine cone, and each is unique, since the molds are destroyed as part of the process. Gallery director Bill Havu pointed out that as Saito has arranged them, the pine cones resemble a murmuration of starlings, because the cones seem to be turning in on themselves. Another sprawling wall installation, “Fish Net,” is installed on an adjacent wall.
I was also drawn to several of the smaller floor sculptures, including “Forest Cradle” and “Forest Babushka.” These look like they were woven out of twigs — an impossibility, since they’re bronze. To create the illusion, Saito cast short lengths of twig and then welded them together so that they look to be continuous as they twist their way through each other. A similar idea informs the very different-looking “Rolling Bamboo Loop,” a spiral of split bamboo shoots on a set of casters that’s both witty and sophisticated.
Some of Saito’s sculptures have a ceremonial character — notably, “Broom” and “Little Dancer,” which are both spikes surmounted by sprays and resemble imperial court appointments. “Bamboo Gymnast,” a tent-like stack of bamboo poles cast luxuriously in gilt bronze, also has that palace quality.
The sole monumental freestanding sculpture is the knockout “Kakashi,” an abstract spire with a circular opening above which is an inverted rough conical shape that rises to the ceiling. The elements it comprises, including a cast of a thick rope, are so realistic that I wanted to touch them to make sure they were actually made of metal.
Another major artist, Enrique Martínez Celaya, is the subject of an important solo at Robischon Gallery: Enrique Martínez Celaya: The Boy: Witness and Marker: 2003-2018. Like Saito, Celaya is exploring ideas while employing recognizable imagery, but he’s doing so in a completely different way.
Celaya was born in Cuba, moved to Spain as a small boy, and spent most of his childhood in Puerto Rico. He now lives in Los Angeles but has a long relationship with Colorado, having been involved for many years with the renowned Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass Village, where he’s served on the board. Although he’s exhibited his work around the world, this is Celaya’s Denver debut. (Inexplicably, artists who show in the Aspen area are often overlooked here.)
For this solo, Celaya looked at the cycles of work he’d done and isolated depictions of boys that would have originally been put together with other archetypical figures. Though there are similarities among them and they are meant to have a universal spirit, all of the boys are individuals.
I walked through the gallery with the artist, and although I’m not sure, I think the images of the boys are not only meant to convey an “everyboy,” but might also represent Celaya’s feelings based on his personal experiences. This thought crossed my mind at the very start of the show, where 2005’s “Boy at the Shore,” an intriguing photographic pigment print, is hanging. Celaya moved a lot as a kid, and the boy looks ahead, his back to the sea. His expression is taciturn, and he’s wearing odd clothing that’s all but transparent except for the embroidered flowers, revealing his nakedness and expressing his vulnerability.
In fact, the renderings of all the boys project some kind of stress, and their troubled faces give the whole show an angsty tilt. Sometimes they are truly in peril, like the naked boy frozen in a block of ice in “The Unwilled.” Then there’s the boy sleeping with his head resting on a dead sea skate in “The Relic and the Pure” whose pose refers to Edvard Munch. In “The Prince,” the colors of the sky are Munch-ian above a stone-faced boy hanging by his arms from a tree.
The paintings have a neo-expressionist mood and have been painted using techniques associated with abstraction as opposed to the tighter moves of traditional realism. Plus, the content does not fill up the entire picture plane, and the edges are left unfinished in places; sometimes even the boys themselves are not fully portrayed. For Celaya, this incompleteness reinforces the artifice of the depiction so that they are not confused with direct representations.
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The show culminates with the pairing of the sculpture “The Traveler” with the painting “The Wager (or The Dreamer),” both among the newest pieces. The sculpture, which dates from 2016, is a bust made of wood covered in tar and straw. The painting, created last year, would seem to be celebratory, with the image of a boy with his arms up, holding a golden dove aloft in his gold-covered hands. But even this has a pall thrown over it by the expression on the boy’s face.
While last fall’s shows were all about abstraction, the second half of the season, just getting under way now, seems to have more of a conceptual-realist vibe.
Yoshitomo Saito: Woven, through March 2, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, williamhavugallery.com.
Enrique Martínez Celaya: The Boy, through March 9, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.