A battleship has overturned and dropped to land in Denver, Colorado’s Civic Center. The sloping titanium shingles jut sideways at off angles, cutting into the skyline. I stare at it, hands on hips, hoping to glean some understanding. Nothing comes. I scowl at the edifice and, arms crossed, walk under its deconstructivist design. The Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton building baffles me. I have never encountered geometry like this, and I cannot wrap my head around its symbolism. Gazing at the works placed inside the oblique galleries is equally disconcerting. No whiff of comprehension emanates from this housing to enlighten me. The city’s sculptural landscape is complex and nuanced, none of it willing to be quantified. I realize this as I am repeatedly accosted by pieces which evade my need to file them neatly into objects I like or dislike. I am unable to render a verdict on the fifty-foot pair of chalk-white dancers on Speer Boulevard. The rusted metal looped line in front of the convention center confuses me. The writhing tower of cherry toned epoxy globules in the Highlands neighborhood befuddles me.
“I have always struggled to comprehend modern art.”
It does not have any aesthetic ease. Present me with a nineteenth century bucolic watercolor and I know where I am. Oil portraits of Dutch maidens and French monarchs I can handle. Bronze statesmen on horseback, pensive soldiers, Charity as a mournful gowned goddess I appreciate. On a superficial level their appeal is simple. They speak to me while I stand in front and listen. Contemporary art has never done this for me. Instead it disturbs me, posing unanswerable questions about meaning, about life… about me. Denver is so replete with modern carvings and architecture that I cannot ignore it here. These puzzling pieces form an integral part of this metropolis; they make up Denver’s personality so I cannot pass them by, hoping for something unchallenging to soothe my tastes. I take refuge, though, at the botanic gardens. Among the laburnums and asters I pass. Inside this natural world I hide, believing I will not be troubled by the unruffled plainness of the lily pond. I do not want to think so hard. I am a flaneur; I want the overwhelming content of the world to fall like rain, unabsorbed by me. I want to only partially be inspired by my environment. Yet even in this straightforward setting I am prodded out of my laziness. The tangled vines mock my complacency. The bromeliad trichomes wave at me in derision.
I walk deliberately to a funnel-shaped bamboo tower at the crossroads of two paved walkways. I study its smooth texture, its raveled rise. It murmurs about tempests and whirlwinds, urging me to do more than stand and look. In its craggy tumult I am borne up into higher currents of rumination. I think about cyclone storms, black holes, and energy vortexes. I am unsure whether I understand this sculpture any better or whether I am pleased with it, but that seems unimportant now.
“Too often I am influenced by binary choice —yes or no, like or dislike, this or that —thereby constraining any tangential rendering.”
Facing these public sculptures, attending to them, I ask myself, “What is the worth in finalizing everything?” There is value in the ability to perplex. Though I may not grasp the meaning of these bamboo swirls, they challenge me to consider new ideas, open other mediums… they inspire me. Mystification is no assurance of quality, but it has its purpose.
“While I know what I like, does it follow that I must always like everything I know?”
I rely on words to glean meaning which makes my relationship with artwork complicated. I grapple to extricate ideas that are mine from it. I know that this can only happen with practice, with concerted effort from me to apprehend the truth and beauty from another’s creation. So I head to the Lao Tzu figurine in Acoma Plaza and puzzle over its interlocked swaying pieces. I contemplate its size, its ocherous hue, and its composition of i-beams. I evaluate its title: Lao Tzu is father of Taosim, a philosophy that emphasizes living in harmony with nature. This work, however, seems in contrast to its environment. Its vibrant tones are in fiery opposition to the spacious Denver ultramarine sky. I reflect on other concepts the structure kindles like space and abstraction. I dither with these postulations and realize that I may never fancy this work, nevertheless, it has given me food for thought. This tension is something I battle with in my work as well. There is a continuous tug-of-war between my desire to create substantiality and my need to be part of the incessant loop of approval. I understand now that, similar to approaching modern art, the only way to slip out of this noose is to practice my craft, to attend to it. Denver’s bold aesthetics urge me to pursue nuances that delve beyond platitudes, to hone ideas that beg reexamination, to forge material that captures the reader long after the sound bites have faded.
Denver locals and its government are passionate about arts culture. During the annual “Arts Week” the city promotes local artists and galleries on its “Know Your Arts First Friday,” while museums, the botanic gardens, and history center host free nights for the public. The Colorado Ballet Company and various theater productions also give special shows during this time and allow behind-the-scenes access.
Has a modern art work caught your attention? Have a favorite work of art? Thoughts on Denver? Let us know in the comments section.