A Look Back at Our Interview with Public Art Giant Lawrence Argent

The Denver-based sculptor and educator died after complications from surgery this month. We're reposting this recent interview as a tribute to his talent, and his lasting impact on Denver. 
Lawrence Argent is undoubtedly best known in Denver for his iconic sculpture, I see what you mean, the blue bear standing 40 feet high and pressing itself up against the Colorado Convention Center, appearing as if it's peeking into the glass edifice.

Since creating that big blue mammal in 2005, Argent's public art has been in big demand.

His 49-foot-long giant panda bear, I am here, installed in 2014 in Chengdu, China (in the Sichuan province where panda bears are native), appears as if it's scrambling up the side of a shopping mall and hoisting itself onto the rooftop deck.

Leap, completed in 2011, includes a 56-foot-long reddish rabbit, which hangs down in mid-bound within Sacramento's airport, above a swirling vortex of a green granite suitcase, which is as large as a queen-size bed. He calls Leap a commentary on the idea of psychic -- as well as literal -- "baggage." It's also, according to Argent, an artistic way of short-circuiting the anxiety associated with the airport experience by surprisingly introducing an animal which holds mythological associations in multiple cultures.

And in 2016, he oversaw the construction of the largest sculpture standing in San Francisco: a 92-foot-tall, stainless-steel whirlwind of a Venus de Milo.

While conceiving his art projects, Argent asks himself big questions. For example: "How much data can we remove from a real object and still have something recognizable?"

That was his inquiry as he was designing Denver's blue bear, while using a 3D animation program, after having based his initial design on a child's toy.

To paraphrase another of his inquiries: "How can I turn commonly held notions of beauty into something new and contemporary?"

Argent asked himself that as he reenvisioned the classical form of the Venus de Milo, the armless Grecian wonder. Argent's twisting sculpture -- rising up to almost Statue of Liberty dimensions from a base that's four feet in diameter -- is part of an apartment complex plaza, which will be open this year to the public in the Mission District. (His late patron on that big project had been a major San Francisco landlord.) Argent also designed the courtyard floor's undulating, tile-mosaic pattern, as well as several other marble, sculptural elements, all meant to work cohesively as part of a "gestalt," he says.

It was the totality of that San Francisco project -- C'era Una Volta (which translates as "Once upon a Time") -- which led him to ask,"How do we make a plaza appear that it's been there forever, and the buildings are actually built around the plaza?"

Argent wants people to question their assumptions while viewing his artwork. He says the best public art tends to "upset the status quo, and not in a shocking value." Argent wants to stop viewers in their tracks, perhaps stopping thought in its tracks as well:  "A work needs to seduce the viewer into another dynamic, another realm that takes you away -- public art, especially."

Speaking of tracks, one of his most successful pieces isn't a behemoth at all: Ghost Trolley (2007), located on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, is a thin, two-foot wide and 20-foot long piece, depicting a historical trolley car on its tracks. Argent envisioned his sculpture being seen from passing vehicles: As a motorist goes by, he or she suddenly notices the sculpture's trickster-like form align into what appears to be a full-sized trolley car -- something far larger and more massive than its actual slender width -- having appeared out of nowhere (perhaps out of the past). Drivers may look back in their rear-view mirrors, questioning what they've just witnessed.

His art has been known to leave viewers delighted, annoyed or baffled.

It pleases Argent to report, "I like to be able to question the notion of 'normalcy.'"

An entryway into artLawrence Argent, 60, sits amid various parts of scultpures and artwork.

Argent, 60, had an unusual childhood. He grew up in Australia, after his parents relocated from Great Britain for employment (his father was an architect). In 1965, when Argent was eight, his parents sold their possessions and took Lawrence and his younger brother traveling around the globe for three months. In Egypt, they saw King Tut's sarcophagus; in Greece, they visited the Acropolis of Athens; and, in Baalbek in Lebanon, the Argents trekked to the Temple of Bacchus.

Argent recalls those journeys as both "phenomenal" and  "magical," and says they were his "entryway into art." "I was always interested in mythology and civilizations," he says. "It really tweaked me to look at things in a slightly different way."

While studying art, he draw lasting inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, whose "readymade" objects were displayed as modern art -- earning derisive reactions from some spectators in the early 20th century.

In his earlier work, Argent, like Duchamp, would take found or readymade objects and "tweak them." He stiffened a series of antique women's gloves with polyresin, and, then, hung the encased pairs on a wall side by side, calling the 1994 work Library of Applause. Reflections (2000) consists of "soap, motor oil, boxing gloves and wash stand"; the form of a white cowboy hat sits atop white soap filling one side of the washstand, while, on the other side, a pair of boxing gloves hangs above a pool of black motor oil (perhaps an odd, yin-yang take on hyper-masculinity or societal views on race relations?). Argent also hung a pair of large, red, bristly, street sweeper brushes together and dubbed the dangling pair Cojones (1994.)

One can imagine someone commenting, "He's got some cojones to call that art."

A professor at the University of Denver, Argent designed a public art display outside of the school's Ritchie Center, called Whispers (2002). It consists of limestone slabs, featuring the form of lips, where students can sit and trigger audio of pre-recorded speeches. Other lips are hoisted up on poles, mirroring the form of the Ritchie Center's spire.

One of the limestone benches bears the inscription, "For All Students Present, Past And Future." However, a random sampling of present-day DU students seem puzzled by the work.

One student finds the series of lips "very interesting." But as far as the artist's intentions? "Not the slightest clue, to be honest. No idea."

Another says, "I think it's definitely different. I'm indifferent; I'm not sure if I like it or not."

There have been other forms of criticism: He's had pieces in Sacramento, Fort Collins and Nashville vandalized. Even Denver's blue bear hasn't been immune from monkey business: In 2013, someone dumped a bucket green paint on I see what you mean from the conventions center's roof. A local artist was arrested, but no charges were filed.

Argent brushes off the green paint incident. "Oh, it was waterproof paint. It's fine," he says. "It's inevitable that things will happen."

On the other hand, he did find it funny when someone added to -- rather than defaced -- his artwork by placing a blue, paper mache pile of feces, beneath the bear's blue rump.

Super-sized toysArgent designed a public art display outside of the school's Ritchie Center, called Whispers (2002).

The blue bear has become iconic. There's been a Blue Bear Cafe within the convention center, and at least one tour line spotlights the work. The city uses the blue bear image on some of its placemaking banners near the convention center. Visitors to Denver can  purchase an eight-inch replica at the Denver Art Museum for $27 (it looks like a toy version, perhaps similar in stature to the one that Argent initially used to create his piece).

Argent's big blue bear led directly to his recent Venus de Milo courtyard in San Francisco -- and now the world has opened up for him. Argent, 60, once competed against other artist for assignments. Now, sitting in his studio in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, he says, "I get asked, which is convenient." He's no longer an outsider -- like a big blue bear on the outside looking in.

Argent has two additional projects in China on the horizon, both of which were offered up to him. Although the actual forms can't be discussed in print just yet, one appears to be among the largest -- and perhaps most grandly stunning -- piece he's ever taken on, so far, touching once again on a mythological theme.

The other one almost looks like it's going to constructed from . . . could it be Legos?

Argent, who once toyed around with a toy bear in designing his iconic Denver sculpture, is delighted by the comparison, exclaiming, "That's what I wanted: It was all about pieces going together!"

But don't assume that Lawrence Argent can be easily figured out. He discusses the overarching theme of his work: "The whole premise to all of this is: Assumptions of what we think are put in a moment of stasis."

Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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