At Foothills and the CVA, two shows explore what people do and what they're made of

The human figure is the most essential referent in the world of art, and it surely has the longest history, as revealed by the Venus of Willendorf, a sculpture of a nude woman created in what is now Austria around 26,000 years ago.

The Venus was recovered a century ago, but more recently, a musical instrument was found that is 10,000 years older than the nude. The instrument, a bone flute, also refers to the human figure, as it was made to fit in someone's mouth and the sound that it emitted was meant to be heard through the ears. And the flute isn't just about music; though technically not a work of art, it is an actual object created by human hands.

This distinction between images that imitate the look of the figure and objects that are meant to interface with people is a hot topic in contemporary art circles. Both conservative, traditional realism and the edgy though well-established conceptual realism concern themselves with representational imagery. On the opposite pole is postmodern conceptual art, which refers to the human form indirectly or by implication — like that prehistoric flute.

What's brought all this to mind is Charles Parson: Personal Echoes on the Horizon, an exhibit at Foothills Art Center that delves into the idea of making art about people without creating direct visual references to the human form itself.

The display begins in the Carol and Don Dickinson Sculpture Garden in front of Foothills, where Parson has installed a trio of hieratically composed tubular metal sculptures that are actually gongs; the viewer/participant is meant to strike the gongs with clappers that are chained to them. The sound has something of the character of church bells, which is apt, since Foothills was originally built as a church. Stylistically, they are pure Parson: industrial in their detailing, but done on a human-based scale.

Parson is, of course, a well-known contemporary sculptor in Colorado with a career that stretches back to the 1970s. He was drawn to Colorado from Michigan — where he had been working in Detroit after receiving an MFA from the renowned Cranbrook Academy — by the majestic scenery. Parson is now building a studio and sculpture garden on a piece of land he bought in southern Colorado. The "cabin," as he refers to this studio, is actually an adobe, steel and glass pavilion that is much grander than what he implies. (There's a photo of it in the Foothills show.)

He recently called me from a nearby mountaintop — the only place on his land where his cell phone worked — to tell me about how the scenery inspired a group of representational pencil drawings that kick off the indoor portion of the Foothills show.

These drawings are uncharacteristic landscapes, and they make for an interesting segue into the main sections of the show. I was surprised that an artist best known for constructivist-style work — with the resulting non-objective forms comprising mostly horizontal and vertical lines, like the gongs — would also do traditional drawings based on nature.

To help explain, curator Michael Chavez has re-created Parson's studio in the Kiln Room at Foothills as a way to demonstrate the relationship between the old-fashioned drawings and Parson's up-to-date sculptures: The horizontal and vertical bars that dominate his sculptures refer directly to the natural environment. Combination works are displayed on Parson's "drawing table," while others are pinned to the wall.

We finally get to the sculptures themselves when we pass into the Bartunek Gallery. In this section, Chavez has installed a suite of wall-mounted sculptures that bring the human figure into the equation. A number of these pieces, elegantly hewn from painted metal bars, chrome hardware and neutral or reflective plastic panels, are based on the footprints of his children. This is solely expressed by dimensional considerations Parson has taken, and he does not include a silhouette of a foot or any other kind of representational image to suggest it. The works are extremely elegant, and though created to be seen from only one side, they have a vibrant three-dimensionality.

The solo builds to a kind of crescendo in the Waelchli Gallery — now a much better defined space thanks to a recently constructed wall — with the monumental "Before Me Behind Me," a gazebo of sorts that viewers are meant to enter. On the floor is a multi-level platform with an open, room-like space in the center surmounted by a transparent plastic dome. It's a signature Parson and a tour de force.

"Before Me Behind Me" is the perfect setup for the even more ambitious installation that fills the Quaintance Gallery, the former nave of the church. For Parson, this is the perfect spot for it, because he sees this set of five separate structures as having a spiritual or even devotional quality. The pieces that make up the installation are similar in conception to "Before Me, Behind Me," but they are much smaller, though still large enough for the viewer to enter them, one at a time. In four of them, there are recorded sounds, including the noise made by footsteps; in the last piece, viewers are required to stand on a dish of crushed rock and in that way make their own sounds.

The show is dynamite, and I highly recommend it.

I feel the same way about Trace (Figurative) at Metro State's Center for Visual Art, and that really surprised me, because I didn't expect to. What I had heard about the show was that artists had referred to the figure by using such stomach-turning materials as dirty footprints, wads of hair out of drains, sweat stains on fabric and smears of blood — none of which sounded particularly appealing. On top of that, some friends had told me how bad the ideas put forward by the artists were.

But because the show was put together by CVA director Jennifer Garner, someone whose work I've long respected, I gave Trace a chance, and I'm really glad I did. Far from being a gross-out fest, it's filled with thoughtful pieces, some of which are even conventionally beautiful. Each of the artists was allotted scads of space in which to spread out. The form of the all the works is abstract, but the content is conceptual, as indicated by the strange materials the artists employed.

The exhibit gets under way with the large paintings by Jason Lee Gimbel, made up of canvases covered with his own footprints from his hiking boots — though each also includes a single image of his bare foot. The paintings seem like all-over abstractions until you notice the unmistakable tread marks made by the soles of the boots.

In the next space are all those wads of hair, done in digitized prints on paper by Nigel Poor. The artist had noticed that the stress of her new job as a tenure-track art professor was causing her to lose her hair, so she started cleaning the drain of her bathtub and scanning the results. The scans, mounted directly onto the wall without frames, also look like all-over abstracts, and until viewers examine them carefully and closely, they might think they're nothing more than pencil scribbles. There's a documentary quality to these pieces, and each is titled according to its specific date.

Probably the most compelling are the installations made up of sweat-stained cloth stitched together by Heather Doyle-Maier. I absolutely loved these elegant and subtly colored works done in a wide range of off-whites. Though all of Doyle-Maier's pieces are very nice, the most beautiful of them is "99 Reasons for Silence," 99 squares of fabric hanging in a suspended grid in its own dedicated space.

The last of the quartet of body snatchers, so to speak, is Denis Roussel, who uses digitized photos of smears of blood that have been put under different conditions. This sounds gross, but the resulting prints are lovely if you don't think about what you're looking at. Roussel calls them "experiments," and they are part of a broader group of works that explore the human body.

Trace looks like a nationally traveling show, but it isn't, with Poor being the only artist who doesn't live in Colorado. Even more interesting is the fact that Gimbel, Doyle-Maier and Roussel are so little known despite how good they are. Leave it to Garner to discover them.