Best Sculpture Show — Group 2014 | Catalyst | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

There's no better place for a sculpture show than at the Denver Botanic Gardens, what with all those curving walkways, clearings and water features. And exhibitions director Lisa Eldred has used the grounds to her advantage, mounting one great exhibit after another. The most recent one was Catalyst, devoted to pieces by some of the top contemporary sculptors in Colorado, including James Surls, Linda Fleming and Robert Mangold, along with mid-career masters Emmett Culligan, Kim Dickey, Nancy Lovendahl, Terry Maker, Andy Miller, Patrick Marold, Pard Morrison, Carl Reed and Yoshitomo Saito. All were working in abstract and/or conceptual modes, with nary a bronze cowboy or marble ballerina in sight.

Conceptual artist Patrick Marold hit the big leagues last year when he was awarded a $1.5 million commission to create a work that will occupy the under-construction "valley" where the rail line will meet the new station and hotel at DIA. But even though Marold is adept at orchestrating massive works like these, he's also good on a more intimate scale, as he proved in Patrick Marold: Strata. Marold likes to use simple repeated shapes, like the cluster of metal rods that were used to create a standing sculpture, its shiny surfaces reflecting the room around it; or the rusted rods that were stacked precariously into a leaning pyramid. But he also uses ideas, which explains why his pieces are so smart.

Over the past seventy years, Colorado has built a strong tradition in hard-edged abstraction and pattern painting that flourishes even today in the work of some of the most advanced artists in the state. That's doubtless why Collin Parson, the Arvada Center's visual-art director, decided to put together Perception: Color/Line/Pattern. The expansive exhibit included some mid-twentieth-century works by the likes of Charles Bunnell, Vance Kirkland, Bev Rosen and others, moved on to those from the late twentieth century, including Clark Richert and David Yust, and finished up with younger artists working now with patterns, shapes and lines, among them Jaime Correjo, Adam Holloway, Wendi Harford, Emilio Lobato and Lewis McInnis.

Ever since Marcel Duchamp inverted a urinal a century ago and called it a fountain, artists have been exploring conceptualism — art about ideas. This has been especially true in the past thirty years or so. But, truth be told, most conceptual art puts the idea front and center, so that the art becomes an afterthought. That didn't happen in Joel Swanson: Left to Right, Top to Bottom. The show's title refers to how we read in English, and the works were all about the written language, including the spaces between words. Everything was employed to illustrate Swanson's thoughts on language, but despite all these intellectual referents, the show was chaste, minimal and elegant.

One Denver art trend from last year was the less-is-more aesthetic. Many venues took on this topic, but Space Gallery's Lines and Grids stood out. That's because everything in it was reduced to its most basic expression, with the works all but invisible aside from the paper or canvas on which they were done. The exhibit was organized by Marks Aardsma — a master of the light touch herself — who invited like-minded artists to join her for the fourth rendition of a series on the subject. Among the Colorado artists on board were David Sawyer, Tonia Bonnell, Sophia Dixon Dillo and Scott Holdeman, whose work was shown alongside that of artists from across the country. The show really proved how little it takes for some artists to convey a fully formed visual message.

Theatre Esprit Asia, a local company bringing together pan-Asian casts with culture-centric works, has proven in its first season that the concept is no flash in the pan. Not only is TEA, the theatrical brainchild of actors Maria Cheng and Tria Xiong, strong on talent, but the fine acting has been put to good use in challenging works that are new to the region. It was a leap, no doubt, to even start an all-Asian company in a city where independent theater groups often struggle, but we read the promise of continued success in TEA's leaves. All theater troupes do not look alike.

Steve, the uni-monikered leader of the folk ensemble FaceMan, figured he'd draw on the hypnotic power of scary sharks and funky folk rock when he planned a gig at the relatively small Lost Lake Lounge last October. Inspired by the bogus Discovery Channel documentary about a (fake, as it turns out) prehistoric shark called the Megalodon, Steve commissioned a monumental piece of stagecraft. Designed and built by Justin Hicks, Katie Webster and Keli Sequoia of Incite Productions (who also work as carpenters and set designers for Denver Center for the Performing Arts), the final shark-shaped set took up a big chunk of the bar's back room. Featuring razor-sharp chompers, crimson shark lips and life-like grey skin, the shark stage proved the perfect complement to FaceMan's brand of ambitious rock and roll. Here's hoping FaceMan and his crew of creative geniuses find a way to top themselves this year. Maybe there's a way to build an accurate re-creation of the polar vortex...

The witty The Most Deserving described the travails of a small-town granting agency that has $20,000 to award to a deserving artist. Except that there aren't many artists around, and no one can agree on a definition of deserving. The closest thing to a real visionary is Everett Whiteside, an African-American who makes sculpture out of trash and seems to be the real thing, a guy touched by the genuine wonder of creation. But he is also a crazed, uncontrolled loser who takes Tea Party paranoia over the top as he fulminates about the government having crawled up his ass (and he means it literally). The role is a gift for an actor, and in the Denver Center Theatre Company production Jonathan Earl Peck seized it with both hands, rambling, ranting, muttering, conniving and endowing every crazy moment with conviction and passion.

At first, John, a thief and joker, seems to be around for light relief in The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez's audacious play about a Confederate soldier returning home from the war with a gangrened leg and celebrating Passover with two of his family's freed slaves, who have been raised in Judaism by his father. But in the second act, John delivers a long, impassioned speech that electrifies the audience — and also clarifies the meaning of the play's title. As John, Laurence Curry spoke these words with strength and deep feeling — but impressive as this climactic sequence was, it wasn't the most impressive aspect of his work. Even while joking, teasing, ducking and weaving, he communicated John's deeply ambivalent response to the dance of blame and reconciliation playing out in front of him. It was in his silences, the way he listened and moved, the angle of his head, the unexpressed rage that sometimes blazed into his eyes.

The last time we saw Stephen Day play a leading role was as Albin in the Arvada Center's The Birdcage some years back, when he was a fussy, silly delight. For the most part, he shows up in supporting though significant roles, as he did this year in A Christmas Carol: The Musical, also at the Arvada Center. And whenever he does, he adds warmth, assurance and a rich, strong baritone to the proceedings. As the Spirit of Christmas Past, he evoked every nostalgic, Dickensian thought you've ever had about the meaning of the season.

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