Artist behind Denver's Big Blue Bear has Californians seeing red

Denver artist and educator Lawrence Argent has been closely following the controversy over "Mustang," aka the Blue Demon Horse of Death, which some critics would like to see gallop away permanently from Denver International Airport. While Argent's "I See What You Mean," his sculpture of a big blue bear peeking into the Colorado Convention Center, has become a favorite sight in town (and inspired miniature souvenirs), his plans to place a giant red rabbit at Sacramento International Airport have some residents in California's capital seeing, well, red.

Argent was picked to create a defining piece for the airport's $1.3 billon expansion project last June and came up with a 56-foot-long rabbit with a "Ferrari red" paint job suspended in mid-leap on its way to a huge, twelve-foot-wide suitcase containing a swirling vortex. The concept plays with the idea of airports as anxiety-inducing spaces, Argent explains, as well as the metaphorical baggage all travelers carry. "If you go to DIA, there are rabbits all around your vehicle," he adds. "They're nibbling on your car wires, your brake lines."

Argent's giant rabbit will be fabricated in California and ready in about eighteen months. "I felt really good about this piece," Argent says. "It took a lot for me as an artist to realize I don't want to be called the 'large animal guy.' But this is a piece that will make sense. Because of what it is, it can make a difference, and I shouldn't worry about those other elements."

After Sacramento officials approved the piece in October, though, some residents balked at the sculpture's size and its $800,000 price tag.

"Are you kidding me, we are cutting teachers from schools, slashing the police and fire budget and they want a fiberglass rabbit in the airport. OUR GOVERNMENT HAS GOT TO BE CRAZY," fumed one of many angry Internet posters.

Like Denver, Sacramento has a program in which the city sets aside a percentage of all municipal building project budgets for public art. Never before has an art choice stirred so much controversy, noted an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, but Argent has no problem explaining his work.

And he thinks it's too bad that Luis Jimenez, who created "Mustang" and was killed when a piece of the still-under-construction sculpture broke off and crushed him, isn't around to be part of the discussion over his piece. "And not necessarily to be able to defend it," Argent adds. "I don't think we need to defend it. It's triggered a discussion of something that people are noticing. If people start realizing what they have as a value system of what they think art is, then maybe that's a good conversation to have. Maybe we should have it more about the buildings that are around and cheap development that goes up in my neighborhood...

"It's infuriating that people are so zealous about something that is there," he continues. "Why aren't they more livid about other volatile abuses of aesthetic criteria in our community? Who the hell let those things go up? That's just as important to my environment as that horse out there."

Welcome to the Mile Haiku City: It was just four weeks ago that realtor Rachel Hultin started a Facebook group devoted to the proposition that DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Must Go — "Maybe if we drum up enough people, we can go push the thing over in the middle of the night as an act of civic duty."

Or at least prod almost 300 poets to compose "Mustang"-inspired haiku, which Hultin delivered to the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs on February 2 — just four days before her efforts landed Denver on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, complete with a trademark dot portrait of Hultin that's now on her Facebook page.

But by then, Hultin had learned that no matter how erudite the poems, no matter how embarrassing all the coverage, it's city policy to leave newly installed pieces for five years. "Meanwhile," she recently posted, "I encourage anyone who has a suggestion or ideas on what can be done in the next four years."

How about a slam poetry reading of all the haikus at this week's Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts ceremony?

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