U.S. Steel

Each of the artists in the Arvada Center's current show Steel: Nature and Space gets plenty of room to stretch out. And that's a good thing, since Robert Mangold, Andrew Libertone, Russell Beardsley and Carl Reed--four of the most talked-about contemporary sculptors in Colorado--create wildly different forms of sculpture. Oddly enough, that diversity is exactly what curator Rudy Cerri was after.

When it comes to steel, notes Cerri, "Bob polishes it, Andy paints it, Russ leaves it unfinished and Carl combines it with stone." Cerri has divided his vibrant group show into four small solo presentations but says he perceives a deeper relationship between the artists: "All of them, as different as they are, use space as an important part of their sculptures."

The Arvada Center has led the way in the past five years in presenting work from the best local artists. And Steel continues that worthy tradition. This important show, which begins outside in the forecourt of the center's main entrance and continues inside in the lower galleries, is not to be missed.

As the viewer approaches the Center's oddball entrance, several sculptures come into view. Originally the plan was to install outdoor works by each of the four artists. Unfortunately, logistical problems prevented the inclusion of Libertone's piece--Cerri says it was just too big--and that idea was scrapped. Instead, Beardsley and Reed each have two pieces at the entrance, and Mangold has one.

Beardsley's brand-new outdoor pieces, "Water Dreams #1" and "Water Dreams #2," are an outgrowth of a series launched three years ago by this young sculptor, who once served as an apprentice to Denver craftsman Karl Arndt. Both combine stainless steel, wood and water into what are essentially horizontal boxes on tall legs. The boxes have peepholes at their narrow ends that allow viewers to peer into the dark and subtly colored environment within. This dimly lit world is enlivened by the sound of running water and by the dappled light that comes through the holes Beardsley has punched in the top.

While Beardsley's outdoor works can hold their own amid the forecourt's dizzying glut of architectural details, the new pieces from Reed, a teacher at Colorado College, tend to get lost in the unusual outdoor space. When viewed up close, Reed's delicate compositions "Bowed Maker #3" and "Wedged Column #3" have an impressive formal elegance. But whether people will take the time to view them up close is another matter. It's a shame these two pieces weren't displayed together, perhaps on the lawn. The placement of "Bowed Maker" is particularly unfortunate--it's been literally kicked to the curb.

By contrast, the one outdoor piece by Mangold, the 66-year-old dean of contemporary sculpture in Denver, looks like it was designed for the space it occupies next to the goofy building. That's because it was. Tall and narrow, the stainless-steel "PTTSAAES #22" rises from the ground to the top of the colonnade like a baroque streak of lightning. (Its title, an abbreviation of the phrase "particle traveling through space at an erratic speed," refers to a recent series of Mangold works.)

Cerri launches the indoor portion of the show with a group of seven smaller examples from Mangold's "PTTSAAES" series, and the pieces nearly fill the space to overflowing. Mangold's finishes range from roughly scratched to smoothly polished, but they all gleam--a feature Cerri has highlighted by setting the lights low and aiming them directly at the sculptures. As a result, the Mangold works glow in the darkened gallery.

Over the years, Mangold has established a formidable national reputation with his kinetic sculptures. Unlike those pieces, the "PTTSAAES" sculptures in the Steel show don't move. But they do posit a witty rejoinder to Mangold's movable pieces; after all, though they stand perfectly still, the "PTTSAAES" sculptures are meant to provide a three-dimensional record of movement.

In the space adjacent to the Mangolds are a half-dozen constructions by Libertone, who came to Colorado in 1969 to accept a teaching job at the University of Colorado in Boulder and is now a design instructor at Red Rocks Community College. Like Mangold, Libertone has earned himself an imposing reputation, in large part due to classic sculptures like the ones Cerri has included in Steel.

In some ways, these older Libertones are the real revelation of Steel, since most haven't been exhibited in more than twenty years. "A lot of people at the opening said I should go back to doing welded work like these," says Libertone. "They don't understand I've moved on and I don't want to do that kind of thing again." His more recent pieces are assembled, not welded. But despite Libertone's protestations, he's still happy with his older work. "Those pieces have held up pretty well," he accurately observes.

The two oldest Libertones in the show are a pair of tabletop pieces he made in graduate school at Stanford in 1969, shortly before he came to Colorado. "Enlarged" and "Fold Over," both in painted metal on wooden stands, are the prototypes for the four larger sculptures on display. Like their progeny, they're brightly painted welded-steel abstractions in which different elements have been carefully fitted together. The result is a pair of gaudy, gravity-defying stacks.

Among the larger pieces by Libertone is "Strollin'," a 1977 work made of wood and painted-and-plated steel. The sculptor has devised an elaborate system of supports for this large sculpture, which is nearly too tall for the gallery's ceiling. Some elements are found on the floor, while others float above our heads, suspended from the top of the piece. Libertone achieves a particularly nice effect with a wooden log he has placed at the center, which has had a half-timber of finished pine attached along its length. The change of color between the two woods is only one of the visual effects Libertone pulls off, and it's quite a subtle one. Easier to appreciate are the stark contrasts Libertone gets by juxtaposing strong colors like fire-engine red against glossy black and primer gray.

"Jazz Power," a painted-steel-and-wood sculpture from 1976, is another striking Libertone assemblage. In this piece, the artist places a variety of vertical forms atop a square base. As in "Strollin'," an element has been suspended from the top of the piece. In his artist's statement, Libertone uses the phrase "precarious balance" to describe his aim in these pieces, and it fits. Like his small pieces from the 1960s, "Jazz Power" looks as though it might fall over.

Beyond the Libertones are four pieces by Beardsley, including three older pieces that share stylistic similarities with his two sculptures outside. "Absence Box #9," from 1995, is one of the earliest examples of Beardsley's penchant for creating hollow-body sculptures that can be appreciated as much for what's on the inside as for what's on the outside. When the viewer looks into the peephole of "#9," a coffee cup is revealed. The sculpture is meant as a tribute to Beardsley's brother, who died a few years ago. Originally designed to be viewed outdoors, "#9" has a pierced top that allows rain (and melting snow, presumably) to fill the cup, which belonged to his brother, over and over again. The piece has a somberness befitting its cenotaphic role.

More unusual for Beardsley is last year's "Between Remembering and Forgetting," in which a wall-mounted light box has been teamed up with a floor rack that looks like a dirty aquarium. The light box is filled with glass "slides" that contain drawings in tar, shellac and graphite; the viewer is meant to place the "slides" on the light box.

Cerri ends the Steel show with Reed, the only one of the four who doesn't live in Denver. (Reed calls Colorado Springs home.) Most of Reed's sculptures are small, even the lone floor piece, "Propped Gate," a steel-and-stone creation from 1996. On a flat base filled with gravel, Reed has placed two thin steel legs that support a slab of rough-hewn stone. "Propped Gate" is so ethereal that in spite of the materials, it appears to float. More weighty, visually, are pieces such as "Pegged Timber," a 1994 work in which an oak log mounted vertically on a heavy steel rod has been pierced and attached on one side to a simple curve of thinly gauged steel. In "Portal Study #3," from 1997, a slab of granite is leaned against a steel construction. In all three sculptures, negative space occupies more of the sculpture than do the positives of wood, stone and steel.

In summing up this show, it's hard to say what it all means. Other than citing the sculptors' use of "space," Cerri leaves us to our own interpretations, and there really seems to be little that connects Mangold, Libertone, Beardsley and Reed. But Cerri's lack of focus aside, this is some heavy metal.

Steel: Nature and Space, through November 16 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.