Joshua Ware delivers some provocative ideas along with his new exhibition at Leon Gallery. They can seem a bit heady when they come at you all at once.
In his artist’s statement, he quotes writings from object-oriented ontology, the thinking that all objects are unknowable; the best we can do when we look at a piece of art is just to let it exist and not try so hard to understand it.
He also drops some thoughts about “queer phenomenology,” which suggests — very simply put — that the ideal way to approach things is to put aside all our notions about how things connect and consume objects without expectations of what we think they ought to be.
But then there is Ware’s work itself, which, while tethered to these concepts, is quite entertaining on a visceral level, and easy to simply enjoy. It uses bright colors, geometric shapes, and human-scale sculptures that want to be appreciated as functional objects as much as they do pieces of art.
It’s an optimistic show and purposely unpretentious. Ware’s message to the people who come to see it is clear: linger, relax, indulge. Don’t get caught up in its complicated title: “And You May Find Yourself Becoming Oblique In An Age of Mass Extinction.”
There is a reference to a 1980s pop song in that title (“Once in a Lifetime,” by Talking Heads) and that decade sets the parameters, at least visually, for the objects in this show.
For sure, there are references in Ware’s works to American art from the 1960s and 1970s. He borrows from the pure geometry and solid colors of Ellsworth Kelly, and from the sharp angles and streamlined, box-like shapes that belong to Donald Judd. The work is rooted in the deconstruction of everything romantic that defines Modern art.
But its personality is so 1980s. The decade of people like Cyndi Lauper and “Weird Al” Yankovic, a time when being stupid and self-deprecating was being smart. Like so many of the things that were happening in the 1980s, it rejects the austere seriousness of modernism in favor of post-modern playfulness.
Some high-art references to these works would be the late-career architecture of Philip Johnson (which includes Denver’s “cash register” building downtown) or the whimsical furniture churned out by the design group Memphis. The low art references would be the album jackets of the music group Duran Duran by artist Patrick Nagle or the exaggerated shoulder pads worn by the characters on the TV show “Dynasty.” Think sharp edges, creamy pastel colors, and a clear camp sensibility.
Ware signals this right at the start of the show by letting the lead piece, a sculpture called “Deth Lighght XXVII,” double as a plant stand. The piece is a series of wood boxes set on the ground at different heights. They are painted robin’s egg blue and have a paisley trim and sell for a considerable $3,200.
But here it is doubling as a plant stand, which is, I have to say, not something you see often at art galleries where artists and curators want viewers to see every single object as something precious and untouchable, and never as something so useful as a plant stand. Ware offers to throw the plants into any sale for an additional $300. It’s an endearing move.
The rest of the show has the same user-friendly feel, combing references to classical art and architecture with the mass-produced functionality of things you might buy at Target or IKEA.
The exhibit’s showstoppers, three column-like wood sculptures, set in the center of the room, that stand six-feet high and are painted in acrylic orange and blue and covered in black-and-white stripes, have the bearing of totems or monoliths that could have been made in ancient Greece or Egypt. But they would also make a great room divider for one of those trendy lofts in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood.
There are other pieces in the exhibition that you might set your keys on or your jewelry. Eric Nord, who runs Leon Gallery and organized the show, pointed out that another piece, the 8-foot wide wall-mounted “Deth Lighght XXI” could easily double as a headboard for a bed. At their least functional, any one of the works could serve as what people used to call “conversation pieces” — objects that inspire folks to engage one another over deep ideas and talk about something more interesting than the weather.
What might get lost in all of this utility is the fact that, really, the objects in this show are primarily works of art, and their usefulness and justification for being lies in that fact. Ware is not making them functional as a way of arguing for their existence. They are confident and present.
But he does take the pressure off. Bold colors make the looking easy. The casual, playful environment at Leon is ultra-comfortable. Ware invites us to take them in however we want, fast or slow, serious or not.
The word “Lighght” in his titles is a nod to the 1965 poem by writer Aram Saroyan that was simply one reconfigured word — “Lighght — with the “gh” combination silent. Saroyan called it an “instant” poem that could be taken in all at once without the distraction of endless reading.
And so a viewer can feel at ease looking at Ware’s offerings in the same way, and that is what makes this such a compelling, deeply thought and ultimately generous body of work. Breathe them in, breathe them out, and be done. Or you can contemplate all of the art historical references and existential theories they embody. Both are good options for appreciating the work.
So is, as the artist suggests, using them as plant stands.
If you go
The exhibition continues through Jan. 14 at Leon Gallery, 1112 E. 17th Ave. It’s free. Information at 303-832-1599 or leongallery.org.
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