The lobby at Republic Plaza can be one of the best spots to see art in Denver. The spaces are vast and the ceilings high, making it a swell host for paintings and sculpture of any size.
No doubt, curators have to work around a few obstacles when installing shows — elevator shafts, a guard station, an entire branch of FirstBank — but there’s plenty of square footage left over for the rotating exhibitions that have taken place there for years.
Best of all, it’s free and radically accessible. Thousands of people pass through, or by, Denver’s tallest building every day. The art comes to them at no charge.
But the space has its limits, and they can get the best of a show like “In Other Words,” featuring Joel Swanson, a top-tier Denver artist known for text-based works, often rendered in neon, that play with the letters and words of the English language.
The lobby is corporate territory, the daily point of entry for scores of white-collar professionals heading to their offices above, and the art has an ulterior motive: to make the building more exciting, more attractive to tenants. It’s art as a marketing tool, and that’s just fine — though it means the art stays on message.
While highly entertaining, exhibits there are on the safe side, and that skews the way people view them. Swanson’s art, while never fully dangerous, seems downright safe there; a bit mischievous at times, but never quite consequential.
The lobby also comes with the trappings of modernism that Republic Plaza carries the mantel of in this city. It’s basically stone, steel and glass; sleek and sophisticated, but so very cold. In this setting, Swanson’s art, which is often made of plastics or glass and manufactured by machines, feels distant. It struggles to make a human connection.
For sure, the work, curated here by Andra Archer, retains its fun factor, and that’s a good reason to stop and see it. It’s difficult not to engage with eye candy art made of endlessly flashing neon. A good example: the piece “W/HOLE,” which hangs on the wall and features that word in neon. The “w” blinks off and on, so sometimes you read “whole” and sometimes “hole.” Swanson reminds us here that words have multiple meanings, and they are often derived from the context in which we encounter them.
Another piece, “NO/NOT/NOTHING” performs a similar trick by breaking down the word “nothing” into three, alternately lit-up parts. There’s also a neon-ized list of car scents “Strawberry, Piña Colada, Wild Cherry” and so on, and an oversized set of neon quotation marks that sit on the floor.
Again, the point is that context has everything to do with interpretation, although ironically, that goes for the art itself. Swanson’s skill as an artist is to isolate these words and phrases, remove them from the formats where we usually encounter them — as ink on paper, digitized text on a screen, in long-winded speeches, the quips of pundits, the lyrics of pop songs — and single them out for analysis. But at Republic Plaza, the pieces hang in a row on the wall, not isolated at all, but grouped together, with one context subbed for another. There’s no time to think about them.
This removes their power. And these pieces can actually be powerful when they stand alone. Swanson created what is arguably one of the city’s best pieces of public art — the exterior, decorative fence that greets guests at the Hotel Born downtown. That fence repeats the word “THERE” endlessly with no spaces between the letters telling you how to read it. You read “THE,” “HE,” “HER,” “HERE” or “THERE,” depending on your state of mind.
And it rings true as art precisely because of its placement: When you arrive at a hotel after a long journey, are you finally “here” or are you always “there” because it’s not the place you live?
Crammed at the Republic Plaza, the works lose their singular identity, and we’re left with a series of clever quips, moments that are somewhere between “aha” and “ha-ha.”
Text-based art is harder to create than it sounds. It’s all about word choices, and artists who make their name in the genre — Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer — wield their words like cheeky poetry, combining sounds and syllables into something beautiful and mysterious and rich. One aches for this art to go deeper at Republic Plaza.
Swanson does reach for something bigger with the piece “Bill of Rights, Amendments 1-10, Extruded.” Here, he literally breaks down the words of the country’s defining document into individual letters, each cut out individually using a laser. The letters are left in indecipherable piles and each of the amendments is separated out, placed on a waist-high pedestal under glass.
There’s a nice civics lesson here: Most people can’t actually name the 10 amendments, and this is a chance to consider them all at once. It’s also a chance to reconsider them: The words are freed from the parchment that gives them their aura, the letters are freed from the words that now serve as contentious hot buttons in the political discourse that surrounds topics like gun rights and press freedoms. We’re left with symbols, just waiting to be reconstructed for the current age.
But how, exactly, should we do that? Swanson doesn’t say. There’s no point of view, no calling out. There’s plenty of deconstruction but no leadership toward assembling a better, more inclusive and moral set of laws. Swanson goes there, but he doesn’t really go there.
Again, context plays a part. Would it be possible to take a stand on something so fundamental as the Bill of Rights in such a corporate environment, in the lobby of the 139th tallest building in the United States? Probably not. Maybe so.
There’s no rule that says artists have to take political positions. They’re free to go paint pretty flowers; the world needs that, too. But simply reminding the citizenry of the mess we already know we are in isn’t helpful. It’s redundant at best, exploitative at worst. In 2019, artists are called upon to lead us forward. Or stick to flowers.
Joel Swanson’s “In Other Words” continues at Republic Plaza, on the 16th Street Mall at Tremont Place. It’s free. Info at artsbrookfield.com/denver.