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Big blue bear artist Lawrence Argent tells critics to lay off the big blue mustang

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With the ongoing controversy over the the late Luis Jimenez's deadly "Mustang" sculpture at Denver International Airport getting bluer and veiny-er with each passing day, we decided to call up another artist (a live one) who has also been on the receiving end of airport-art criticism: Denver artist Lawrence Argent. While his big blue bear - officially titled "I See What You Mean" - has become a beloved icon for city boosters and peeping toms alike, the big red rabbit sculpture he is creating for the $1.3 billion expansion of the Sacramento International Airport has some Californians seeing, well, red.

When the University of Denver professor presented his plans at a public hearing in October, some county supervisors balked at his concept to install a huge, leaping, "Ferrari red" rabbit in the terminal - not to mention the $800,000 price tag. Local newspapers, bloggers and online commenters also focused their ire on the wily wabbit, calling it "jarring," "frivolous" and "hideous."

The latter adjective has also been widely used by Denverites to describe the DIA demon horse, a fact that Argent thinks is "infuriating" since Jiminez isn't around to talk about it. So as promised in this week's Off Limits, here is the full interview with not-the-big-animal-guy.

How big is the rabbit?

56 feet long.

And how big is this suitcase?

It's like 12-by-8-by-3-feet. It looks like it's melted into the floor of baggage claim. It's granite, so it's either going to be white, black or red. We're going through coloration now. I need to look at what we have of the palate in the terminal to make sure we have enough of a contrasting element.

Can you explain the piece? How is it going to be oriented in the space?

You know, when I design something, it's always exclusively site-specific. There's a relationship to its site and its purpose. When you're coming out of the people-mover from the extension of Terminal B, you arrive on the train and you're three stories up. And when you're coming out of that, the first thing you see are the escalators and you start to see these red legs coming out of this void that's in front of you. As you're going down, there's very long escalators that go down to the bottom floor where you pick up your baggage, and you see the rabbit articulated in a digital fashion that's got these facets on it. You start to see that there's a connection between this gigantic, perfectly carved suitcase at the bottom that has this liquid vortex top on it, that this rabbit appears to be diving into.

The big content of the piece is about baggage. What is it that we take with us that makes us feel comfortable? What is it that we feel like when we arrive? We need those physical possessions to feel comfortable, we need those particular clothes for this particular occasion, whatever. And everybody has their own set of baggage -- now, that's metaphorically speaking as well as physically speaking. So we all have stuff that we carry with us and when we're on our journey, airports create a very anxious, nervous, upsetting environment in many different ways that sort of throw us into perhaps the quandary of a somewhat fear-based experience because of the many things that go on.

At airports?

Yeah. It's the angry policeman who told you to leave when your car is parked and you're dropping somebody off. You may not even be flying, but you get the nature of what these places emotionally give off. What can happen when we enter the confines of a transportation hub that needs to deal with the security issues, maintenance, planes? All those things are derivative of usurping some imbalance in our system. And then you line that up with what we need to have with us to feel comfortable. It's the things that become us. And so it becomes the element of what comes in a suitcase. I wanted to create this gigantic suitcase at the bottom of the escalators where we are leaving and arriving. he rabbit became a vehicle by which we can place ourselves historically and fantastically, because of the nature of what it represents and has represented in fables and folklore and contemporary culture.

When the plans were unveiled last October, the response was mixed. What were people saying?

I had already done preliminary meetings, the art committee, the California Arts Council and so forth. So it wasn't this blind thing for the county board of supervisors, which is where they put the press and decided that they'd, you know, nail me on it. We'd gone through some amazing comments and amazing approval dictums, I think. It reinforced a sympathy and empathy for the understanding of what art can do. I really was inspired by that. I was inspired by the City of Sacramento, and that the people I had met in the short time that I had been there that I felt good about being in that place. And I felt really good about this piece.

It took a lot for me as an artist to realize that I don't want to be called the large animal guy. And that's something that took a lot of getting over that, 'No, 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.

Because you have done other works than big animals.

Yes, many that have no relationship to animals or fauna. [The rabbit] was a perfect vehicle by the nature of what airports are. If you go to [Denver International Airport] there're rabbits all around your vehicle. They're nibbling on your tires, on your break lines. Who knows? It just so happens there's a Riparian rabbit that is indigenous to the valley of Sacramento. They have a really unique airport in the fact that there's landscaped green space that people will be able to walk outside in this airport. So this was about the rabbit coming from the outside in. So there's a connection when you're inside looking out through the glass wall, you can see where the rabbit came from.

We could go on and form some justification for it. Part of what I do is create situations, environments for people to experience what's not there about the things that I create. So they become triggers for the more important stuff that's not there.

But what happens when people question why it is there at all? Like, 'Why do we need a 56-foot-tall rabbit at an airport?'

People don't always think the same way. For three years, I was making the blue bear and I was telling people I'm making a 40 foot blue bear. And they would go, 'Huh.' But once it's in it becomes different. People all over the world respond to it, take the time and trouble to acknowledge what art has done for them. If that's any indication, then it does serve its purpose. And it serves it's purpose beyond what we think that something aesthetic occupying a particular space can do.

But why would people get worked up about this one sculpture and not your other ones?

I know, and they didn't get worked up about Donald Lipsky's tree or Christian Moeller piece. They didn't even mention the cost of those things. I'm the one that's getting reamed! [Laughs] Over and over again!

Is it that people have certain expectations of the way airport art should look? Like with Leo Tanguma's murals at DIA. Those things inspired an entire conspiracy movement simply because they happen to be at the airport. And the biggest complaint about the Mustang is that people think its location is inappropriate.

I think there are two issues with the Mustang that are somewhat problematic. If it had been completed on time, maybe the work would not be in the limelight as it is now. When it got placed after the fact, then you wonder the sense of relevance. You wonder, the specificity of its relationship to the place. How did it get there? Are we spending more money? What are we sacrificing to have this here? If it had gone in with all the other art at DIA, it probably would not have reached the press the way it has now. Also, there's a story. And it's a very sad one, the occurrence of the artist's death.

Is it appropriate? As an artist, I look upon it and not necessarily discuss its aesthetic virtue, but I think about what it does as art. It's triggered a discussion about something that people are noticing. Maybe it's done something in a particular way to strike up a conversation. If people start realizing what they have as a value system of what they think art is, then maybe that's already a good conversation to have. Maybe we should talk more about the buildings that are around, and the cheap development that goes up in my neighborhood. Who the hell lets those thing go up? That's just as important to my environment as that horse out there.

The criticism over the Mustang sounds awfully similar to what people were saying about the rabbit.

Actually, that's the unfortunate incident that the artist isn't around to be able to have a conversation. And not necessarily defend it. I don't think we need to defend it. In my particular instance, after playing around with ideas, that [rabbit concept] was something that was essential to me. That's where I think it's appropriate for an artist to be part of this discourse and inappropriate that [Jiminez] is not. So it's somewhat infuriating, I think that some people are so livid about the sculpture.

Why do you think the debate over the Mustang has blown up right now, instead of when it was installed last year.

I think there's an element of fear that's related to other issues, anxiety over the economy, other fears. But it becomes a way to permit venting. And maybe that's what it is. It was here at the right place and the right time.

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