National Velvet, and thoughts on public art in Denver

John McEnroe, National Velvet (photo by Ivar Zeile, Plus Gallery)

John McEnroe, National Velvet (photo by Ivar Zeile, Plus Gallery)

One of my first memories experiencing the “real world” as a teenager was a summer visit to Toronto, Canada. I was allowed to wander on my own in this major metropolis. What I recall from both memory as well as photos from this trip was the quantity of public artworks the city displayed on corners and in distinct locations. For me they served as memorable markers in the environment and enhanced the mostly banal architecture of the city.

Now, many years later, I have sat on public art selection panels for the city of Denver and have approved many works of art for the city collection as a voting member of the Mayor’s Commission for Cultural Affairs. I have also had the wonderful opportunity to work with artists who create public art through my association as owner and director of Plus Gallery. Although many artists go after this work because it distinguishes their career in spectacular ways, few can successfully break into this realm. The competition is extraordinary and the notion that you need to have completed a commission in order to get a commission certainly comes into play.

Denver artist John McEnroe is an artist I’ve worked intimately with and exhibited widely at my gallery for over five years. His ability to conceptualize new and spectacular forms through a rigorous studio practice is virtually unparalleled in the region. His first major commission, a series of “sprue sculptures” that grace the walls of the Colorado Convention Center, are impressive by any standard, exhibiting a playfulness through scale and form that is rivaled only by the giant blue-bear that looks in on them through the massive exterior windows of that building.

John’s fourth commission for the city of Denver, “National Velvet,” was recently installed at the eastern foot of the Highlands Walking Bridge. Though it is the fourth commission John has received in Denver, it is really the first that seems to parallel the general dynamics and singular approach to material that has distinguished John’s entire career as a visual artist. While “National Velvet” will certainly have its detractors, as all great works of art do, it exhibits many uncommon characteristics that are practically revolutionary in the field.

The towering mass of bulbous, glandular forms is captivating in its ability to stimulate the imagination, truly handing the reins of interpretation over to the viewer. The sculptures total transformation from day to night through the use of light is a distinction that few if any public artworks can claim, a direct testament to this artist’s ingenuity and ability to experiment. It’s just what the environment begged for and will undoubtedly become one of the most iconic works of art in the city.

Cities develop initiatives to collect and commission art because it electrifies the environment, providing visual cues that become the true landmarks within a city. Not everyone embraces the value that public artwork adds to a city, but it is certainly what distinguishes leading cities and progressive ways of life across the world.

Ivar Zeile
Plus Gallery
November 24, 2008

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4 Responses to National Velvet, and thoughts on public art in Denver

  1. admin says:

    This is a great video on the controversy about National Velvet. What cracks me up is the chatter about the phallic nature of McEnroe’s work. Dan Caplis apparently has his mind in the gutter. Hey, I was on the selection committee and oddly it never even occurred to me.

  2. hadley says:

    Fox News offers a pretty good look at the topic, and John in the studio which is really cool. There’s a little link to the video from this page:

  3. Sam says:

    it looks like a giant dick. these people are stupid to think that this artist meant anything else but to put a giant penis in the middle of the walk way.

  4. rena allen says:

    That is so ugly. It looks like a bunch of blood clots.

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