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CULTURE FRONT: Art safari in Mile High City
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Last weekend, in need of an arts infusion, my friend and I boarded a Frontier flight to Denver. We had 36 hours at our disposal – enough time to take a few bites of the cultural feast the city has to offer.
Public art quickly became the theme of our adventure. On our first morning, we discovered one of the city’s excellent bike-share docks a block from our hotel on 15th and Curtis. A dozen red cruisers were parked on a wide sidewalk near the 16th Street Mall. As we read the instructions for how to borrow a bike, we were caught off guard by the sound of frogs croaking and water burbling. Temps were already in the 80s before 9 a.m., and the hot asphalt was no wetland. Turns out the frogs we heard were one of several soundscapes piped up through vents in the sidewalk.
The entire city block held a symphony of unusual sounds. Cows lowed from one vent, a tap dancer from another, wolves howled from yet another. I learned later that Denver artist Jim Green created the sound installation, titled simply, “Soundwalk,” in 1992. Six ordinary looking grates emit 40 to 100 distinct sounds, some wild, some pastoral, some urban.
We decided to leave biking for a bit later and instead take a bus from downtown to the Denver Botanic Gardens to see the Dale Chihuly exhibit. The world-renowned glass artist has installed fantastical pieces throughout the 24-acre garden. Chihuly has said, “I want my work to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there.” This statement, if broadened to include any environment, could serve as a public art manifesto.
Chihuly’s brightly colored fronds, stalks, leaves, baubles and flowers do appear to bloom entirely naturally from their settings. At the same time, the startling, glinting attractions were so unnatural as to shatter the calm usually associated with a botanic garden. The vibe was more amusement park than contemplative wonder. This kind of discord in the visual plain is exactly why public art can be so powerful.
Back downtown in the Golden Triangle, my friend and I wandered through the enormous sculptures outside the Denver Art Museum. “Big Sweep,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, consists of a 30-foot-tall stainless steel dustpan and broom, complete with crumpled bits of trash caught in the broom fibers. Fifty feet away stands Beverly Pepper’s “Denver Monoliths.” The two monumental works could not be more different. “Big Sweep” is a 100 percent paean to quotidian human-made history, while the tall, arched dark towers of “Denver Monoliths” echo the long-suffering endurance of stone and nature.
The most moving monumental piece was the sparest. “For Jennifer,” by Joel Shapiro, is a 32-foot-tall aluminum sculpture of rectilinear bars, painted bright blue, perhaps suggesting a figure leaning back and reaching skyward. The piece was made in honor to the late Jennifer Moulton, a Denver planning director who played a key role in the expansion of the Denver Art Museum. To celebrate an expansive, civic vision with a dramatic minimalist sculpture such Shapiro’s seemed to me to indicate Denver’s progressive ethos about the interrelation of art and our everyday lives.