Strolling among the sculptures of human figures scattered through the Denver Botanic Gardens this summer, it’s difficult to decide if you should rush up and hug them, or stomp over and slap them in the face.
After all, the exhibit — titled “Human/Nature” — begs us to consider the relationship between people and the planet they live on, and that whole thing isn’t going so well these days. Maybe it’s all that plastic we’re dumping in the ocean, or those forests we’re decimating, or the temperatures we keep pushing up, pole to pole, creating an existential threat to both flora and fauna.
I don’t know about you, but I see trouble in paradise and it’s pretty clear who is at fault.
The bronze Homo sapiens positioned along DBG’s pathways seem oblivious to the catastrophe, and to mankind’s complicity in it. They’re just hanging about the trees and vines, showing off their amazingly good looks. As a show, “Human/Nature” is either full of naive optimism, suggesting some ideal notion that we can all get along, or it’s in denial.
That leaves viewers on their own to connect the necessary dots, to make something truly meaningful from this massive display of art. Though, I have to say, sorting through these bodies of evidence isn’t the worst chore to undertake on a sunny Saturday afternoon. If the No. 1 goal of sculptors across millennia has been to capture the wholeness of the human spirit in a single object, this assemblage includes some significant attempts.
The statues, all culled from the holdings of collector Craig Ponzio, are complex and pedigreed. They span decades and styles, so there’s something for every taste, from the classically influenced female forms of Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle, to the expressionism of Jacques Lipchitz and Eric Fischl, to the pure abstraction of Beverly Pepper, the environmentalism of Joseph Wheelwright and the politics of Manolo Valdés and Sassona Norton.
Some are as tall as 10 feet and, as usual with DBG’s larger-than-life summer offerings, the objects are installed impeccably and, somehow, delicately; heavy hunks of metal dropped with care among the bushy beard grass, Oregon grape, alpine willowherb, Chinese irises and other plants that make the place special.
It’s all very elegant, classical and quite pleasant if you just let the sunshine, soft breezes and the colorful pop and stink of spring blossoms fill your senses, forgetting about the other side of humanity lurking in these bushes — the stupid, selfish, greedy side that has entire plant species on the run.
With a few important dots connected, DBG’s curators might have stepped in here as a marriage counselor, of sorts, helping us hash out where we went wrong and rallying us to do better as co-habitators. No doubt, that can be a difficult conversation to facilitate; it’s not the kind of chat many garden visitors want during their downtime.
On the other hand, the time to have it is now. Global challenges are genuine and urgent and DBG, nature’s official ambassador to the city, has a right (and maybe a responsibility) to force it.
If it’s awkward, so be it. Responding to this pivotal moment does require a bit of discomfort and activism, and everyone who is experiencing their own reckoning over climate change understands that there’s work involved: all those bikers and walkers who quit their cars; those rabid recyclers and composters painstakingly separating their trash; the people who refuse plastic grocery bags and pass on drinking straws, plant trees, maybe eat a little less meat.
That’s not meant to be a lesson on social responsibility — everyone has their successes and shortcomings when it comes to reducing their footprint — but rather to show the context that “Human/Nature” arrives in the middle of. It misses the moment.
No doubt, DBG knows what’s going on in the world and, in many commendable ways, it operates as a responsible institution, leading a dialogue on water issues, advocating for biodiversity, monitoring bee populations. The garden may not be on the brave forefront of environmental militancy, but it aims to provide a backbone for pro-planet arguments by conducting legit research and offering good advice on gardening with a conscience.
But, here, there’s a disconnect with its art program, a failure to understand that art can play a role in its most important missions, not just be decoration or a tactic for driving up paid admissions.
And it’s not so risky to put some politics on display. Exhibitions can be themed around disruption and remain beautiful. They can include discreet signage and illustrations that add context.
Imagine — borrowing some provocative tactics I’ve seen at other shows — if the figures at DBG were facing away from the crowds rather then posing for them like supermodels on a catwalk. What questions would that raise?
Or if they were stuck, forlorn, in the middle of the lily ponds? Or were being overtaken by native grasses instead of walking over them? A talented curator, working with a willing art lender, would have a dozen better ideas than that, and still make the exhibit handsome.
This is the power of art, really, to be captivating yet woke, to take our breath away and at the same time knock sense into our heads.
The examples from the Ponzio collection are ripe with raw material. The artists built conflict and hope into their pieces. Valdés’ 2005 “Infant Margarita” — installed so effectively on the edge of DBG’s central lawn as to allow 365-degree views of the object — is part of a life-long body of work devoted to forcing civic dialogue. Lipchitz’s 1943 “Benediction II” is an aching nude, a female form bent over and left with an actual hole in the center of her body. It’s a response, as the accompanying text points out, to the terror of the Holocaust.
The Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir’s 2009 “Lights” is a set of five life-sized, androgynous figures positioned near DBG’s prairie grounds. The artist placed translucent glass openings near the hearts of her figures, and they serve as reminders that our spirits remain accepting to better ways.
Their work isn’t meant as a final say, but as a jumping off point for a deeper exchange. Interestingly, it serves just that purpose for “Human/Nature’s” sideshow, a series of musical selections, written by Colorado composers, that are inspired by the individual sculptures. The pieces — by J. Hamilton Isaacs, Madeline Johnston, Michael Jason Corder and Ryan McRyhew — are striking and experimental, and visitors can listen on their phones as they wander the garden.
What is the proper role for an institution like DBG, in the middle of a crisis like this that is directly related to its mission? Smack in the middle of Denver, a progressive city in need of progressive institutions? Should it be more aggressive?
Maybe that’s heavy-handed. You can tell how I lean. So let me pass the weight to Sir Robert Watson, who heads the Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a world leader in environmental research. Here’s what he said just last year in a plea for rapid responses to climate change:
“The best available evidence, gathered by the world’s leading experts, points us now to a single conclusion: We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature — or risk not only the future we want, but even the lives we currently lead.”
“Human/Nature: Figures from the Craig Ponzio Sculpture Collection” continues through Sept. 15 at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org.