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Shimmering Visions in Stone and Steel 

Colorado sculptors lift spirits with solid, earthbound objects

Into Thin Air, a show and benefit sale featuring works by ten sculptors with Colorado connections, opens tomorrow at the Pankratz Studios and Gallery in Monument.

If you haven't been to Richard and Linda Pankratz' establishment, it's worth the trip by itself. Picture a stand-alone modern building that includes not only a pleasant gallery space, but also a very extensive ceramic studio space where Richard Pankratz has been creating increasingly wonderful ceramics for many years. Thanks to a window wall which divides the gallery from the studio, visitors can plunk themselves down in an easy chair and watch the process of creation. It's an interesting experience; not quite as intimate as the Business of Arts Center -- where you can sometimes walk right into the artist's work space and pester them -- but equally interactive and fun.

For this show, Richard and Linda invited ten sculptors to participate. It's fascinating to look at a show which is not chosen by jurors or curators, but by the artist-owners of a commercial gallery. Given Richard Pankratz' technical facility, you'd expect that the artists so chosen would be masters of their craft, fully in command of their chosen media. And given the enduring success of their gallery, you'd expect that the work would be seductive and beautiful as well as technically superb.

In other words, it ought to make you want to own it, even if you have to write a pretty big check. And indeed, there were quite a few pieces in the show that seemed to have that "take me home" quality.

For a critic, the greatest joy that one can have is to see art that is so unlike anything else that it takes your breath away. Dave Regier's "Hemisphere in Steel" is strange, original, perfect and mysterious. Starting with a stainless steel base, Regier has welded hundreds, perhaps thousands, of closely spaced stainless steel forms to that base. These elements -- rods, plates, tubes -- form an extraordinarily intricate design. Once assembled, the work is then ground, buffed and polished to mirror brightness. The end result is a half-sphere, 17 inches in diameter by six-inches high, which looks like nothing else on earth. Is it the control panel of the Death Star? The core of a nuclear device? The repository of all knowledge? Its design seems to be symmetrical, yet the logic of its symmetry is elusive. It's beautiful, easy to look at and perfectly incomprehensible.

Joiner Kent Townsend works with walnut, ash, cherry and oak. His materials and techniques are wholly traditional, and I doubt whether he uses the computer-aided design tools that Dave Regier so effectively employs. Townsend's work is graceful, finely proportioned and well-executed. I was particularly drawn to a tall cabinet in walnut and ash, where Townsend uses the two contrasting woods in ways that enhance the design of the piece.

Wheatridge resident Norman Epp has no less than five substantial limestone sculptures in the show. According to Linda Pankratz, Epp, while working in Kansas, was offered a number of massive limestone blocks from the foundation of a ruined school, "free if you can carry 'em away." He made good use of them, creating strong abstract forms whose complex mix of shapes and textures are delightful to look at, more so to touch. Epp also has a similarly executed piece in Virginia soapstone which, given soapstone's sensuous feel and rich color, is even more successful than his limestone pieces.

Richard Pankratz has been an artist/sculptor/ceramist in the Pikes Peak region for 20 years or more, and he just keeps getting better. Unlike many artists who, having achieved both commercial and esthetic success, tend to repeat themselves, Pankratz continues to push the envelope, to attempt work that's increasingly complex, technically demanding and just plain difficult. While his studio continues to produce the ceramics for which he has long been noted, Pankratz himself has been creating some striking pieces, several of which are in the show.

Consider his outdoor fountain, "Shimmering Waters" -- three tall steel columns, surmounted by a ceramic shape (a rising sun, perhaps?), and crowned by a gleaming, lustre-glazed porcelain ball, from which water flows gently down to the fountain's base. It's arresting, original and hardly what you'd expect from a commercial potter.

Or look at "En Passante," one of Pankratz' showy, even spectacular, floor vases, this one crowned with a tableta of purpleheart (a South American hardwood). Modestly (for what it is) priced at $1400, it's worth noting that 50 percent of the proceeds from its sale will go to the Fine Arts Center, should it sell at the opening reception. If not, the FAC will get 25 percent of any eventual sale.

But of all Pankratz' pieces, I liked best his "Sofa Table" in bronze, glass and ceramic. Imagine an abstract glass form (and, yes, it is a fully functional tabletop) set upon a bronze frame, with an intricate bronze skirt, the whole supported on three legs of bronze and ceramic. It's a real tour de force of design and execution, a useful table, a fine work of art.

I spent a while talking with Richard Pankratz, who reminded me of the Colorado ranchers I'd known as a boy in the '50s. Straightforward, unpretentious, and with the calloused mitts of someone who makes his living with his hands, Pankratz had some interesting things to say.

We talked a little about the monotony and sameness of the American landscape; the endlessly replicating chain stores, strip malls and asphalt fields that strip the land of its character.

"We're in danger of losing our individuality," Pankratz observed. "That's the true function of art and artists -- to maintain some individuality. What we want to do [he paused] ... we want to lift people's spirits."

Indeed.

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