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Attack of the Hundred Painted Chrysanthemums 

A fresh take on a vintage genre at the BAC's garden art show

The ever-inventive Rodney Wood, whose shows at Manitou's Business of Art Center are often quirky and original, has outdone himself this time. He's taken a concept that is, to put it kindly, trite beyond belief and has made it fresh and interesting.

"Garden Art" -- now there's an original idea!

You can just imagine it: watercolors of very large flowers, and a few ceramic gnomes.

Well, there are plenty of floral still lifes, and maybe even a gnome or two in Seeding Limited, but it's a good show nevertheless. Because of Rodney's rapport with the artistic community, most of our region's serious professionals are represented. And because it's an open show, every Sunday painter in the Pikes Peak region is represented as well. As Rodney remarked to me, "We're not the Fine Arts Center; we don't have to do snooty, serious shows."

The result is a whimsical, lighthearted and mostly delightful show with something to please every eye.

Garden art, as such, has existed for thousands of years. The Roman villas at Pompeii, whose mosaic floors flowed from interior to exterior spaces, were early exemplars. Gardens themselves can be works of art; indeed, in the second century B.C., Antipater of Sidon listed Queen Sammu-Ramat's Hanging Gardens of Babylon as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

But garden art reached its apogee in 18th century England, when wealthy aristocrats, enchanted by the ruins of ancient Rome, tried to duplicate them on the grounds of their country estates. These "romantic" follies, as they were called, were literally constructed as imitation ruins -- marble temples, collapsed villas and the like. Many of them remain today (these were well-built ruins!), and they're at least as romantic as the real thing, since they're neither surrounded by cars nor overrun by tourists.

Since then, garden art has filtered down to the masses and has come to mean a birdbath, a koi pond, a decorative wall and maybe even a sculpture or two. And while I didn't see any koi ponds or decorative walls, there are at least three birdbaths and plenty of garden-ready sculptures at the BAC show.

Nearly 200 individual artworks comprise the show, which overwhelm the BAC's pleasant exhibition space. There's scarcely an empty square inch of wall space, which is a little claustrophobic at first. But once you recover from the initial sensory onslaught (is there a '50s Japanese horror flick here -- Attack of the Hundred Painted Chrysanthe-mums, perhaps?), there's a lot of good stuff to see.

I'm a sucker for welded metal sculpture made of parts from junked cars. That said, I loved Matt McGrath's funky and cheerful "Iron Stallion." This noble beast, cleverly assembled from wire, a pair of con rods from a big ole engine and a timing chain from a truly monster engine, would make a fine addition to anyone's garden.

Sharon Cupit's wild and wonderful ceramic sculpture "Do you ever wonder what they do with a day off from the Zoo?" is a real technical tour de force. Imagine a ceramic pickup truck (looks like a '53 Ford stake bed), with a dozen or so ceramic animals as passengers. There's a giraffe and an elephant, and other zoo denizens, all cleverly conceived, and beautifully executed.

Suppose you were a weaver turned ceramist, and for this show you made a wonderful tall vase, in riotous greens and yellows, festooned with tropical birds, a blow-'em down, kill-shot, best-of-show kind of vase, What would you call it? If you're Kathleen Koltes, who made this glorious object, you call it "Bird Poop Vase." And it's still a truly wonderful work of art.

After I'd looked at the hundred-odd floral still lifes for a while, most of which were pleasing and reasonably accomplished, I wondered whether anything new was possible in that particular genre. Start with meticulously rendered 17th century Dutch still lifes, and end with Van Gogh and O'Keefe, and where can you go from there? Even though most of the ground has already been covered, talent can always find new ways to communicate a vision.

A few months ago, print maker Jean Gumpper was inspired by a newspaper account of the discovery of fossilized flowers, over 90 million years old, preserved in an ash deposit in New Jersey. She acquired some mottled gray handmade paper from local artist Tom Leech, Xeroxed some brittle cut flowers, extensively altered the images, and eventually made solar etchings on the ashen paper. Three prints, entitled "Fossil Flowers" are on display, and they're as striking and original as we would expect from this extraordinary artist. (And it's good to note that Jean, an artist-in-residence at the BAC, was recently honored with a fellowship from the Colorado Endowment for the Arts. The fellowship carries a substantial cash award, and only two or three artists are so honored every year.)

Two samples of Leech's work, in the form of handmade and marbled paper with a floral theme, are on display. Tom has been working in this medium for years, and he seems to have achieved real mastery. Given that the nature of the medium is such that it can't be completely controlled, it takes a lot of time and knowledge to learn how to create an image rather than simply benefit from chance. Tight, subtle and understated, these two pieces are superb.

There are four or five birdbaths on display, any one of which would delight the gardener's eye. I liked Ken and Tina Riesterer's coolly erotic piece, a shallow basin with images of sinuously intertwined naked bodies placed on a ceramic pedestal glazed a rich cobalt blue. And Edie Knapp Nelson's "Indian Dancer," an airy but sturdy construction in green-painted steel was just as pleasing.

There's more -- Mike Palmer's delicate mobile, copper forms like empty seedpods suspended from a swooping base of curved steel, Karen Pierce's rattan sculpture, Mike St. Clair's "Garden Office" (an old-fashioned lawn chair decorated with office equipment), and Eulalie Brown's "Garden.com." There had to be a dot-com in there somewhere, and I won't try to describe it, other than to say that it's just as friendly, hip and incomprehensible as a typical dot-com ad on primetime television.

Come to think of it, I guess that's the point. And the point of the show, which is friendly and comprehensible, is simple: Get out of the house since it's truly springtime now, and go see it.

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