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Charles and Collin Parson go big at the FAC

Circle back home



It's a few weeks before the opening of Continuance at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and Charles and Collin Parson are assembling their site-specific installations.

I meet Charles, who goes by Chuck, in the freight elevator. This is the first full day he's been able to spend in the gallery. There's not a lot to see, he says; if this were a kitchen, all I'd be getting right now would be the smells. But with curators Blake Milteer and Joy Armstrong, he's lugging white metal "X"s into the El Pomar Galleries, and everyone's chipper and smiling.

Chuck's an old hand at this. A well-established artist in Denver, he's shown in dozens of solo shows and has permanent works that range from installations at ArtYard in Denver to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Among his many professions, including teaching, he's served as a professional illustrator and muralist, having done work for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science since the mid-'80s.

But this is the first time he's shown in Colorado Springs. And it's the first time he's shown with his son.

Collin is already at work: He's about finished with his installation, a 16-foot circle illuminated from behind with gently shifting, colored light. The Beastie Boys blast from a boom box nearby.

Collin is also established in Denver, belonging to the prestigious Pirate: Contemporary Art co-op and working as the gallery exhibition manager at the Arvada Center. Like Chuck, he has a sprightliness about him. He turns off the lights and quiets the Boys. His emphasis on light glows in the dim room. The giant circle radiates a mesmerizing series of colors, one on the outside, one on the inside.

"I had to use some math, pi R squared, to figure out how many LEDs [I needed], so geometry came in handy," Collin says. The two LED strands are nestled behind a black plywood face, and each sequences through the six primary and secondary colors. The strand inside is set to change a little faster than the outside, and the color combinations are random.

"I'm pumped to be showing next to my dad. I've helped him all my life; it's cool," Collin says. He's also excited to be showing on the backside (literally) of what was the FAC's 2012 James Turrell exhibit. Years ago, the iconic light artist's work influenced Collin as an undergrad to switch his projected career from lighting design in theater to art.

Nearby are what look like decorative fire screens mounted on the walls, glowing with colored light. One looks like a sunburst, the other two have an ovoid shape cut into them — a circle, Collin says, that you're viewing at an angle. Some allow the light to bleed out the sides, others he has boxed in.

"The most challenging part of working with light is controlling where it goes," he says. "Light wants to go everywhere."

Armstrong and Milteer have worked with the Parsons for several years on Continuance, allowing it to gestate and morph as the four conversed. Outwardly, there's not a lot of similarities between Chuck and Collin's art, though there's certainly a visual theme of circles between them.

"I think there's this conversation in both their art between geometry, between industrial materials, between nature and natural phenomena and their response to all that plays out in their work," Milteer says.

"Both their works, I think, are very emotional," Armstrong says.

"I think you come at it at different times in each of their work," Milteer adds. "With Collin's, I'd say it's right up front, it's part of your initial experience. It's emotive and that color pushes and pulls on you, and then I think as you spend time ..."

" — after some time, you start to notice some of the formal qualities," Armstrong interjects, "how the work is constructed, or start to investigate how it's working and looking at the geometry of the thing and starting to ask some of those questions."

"It reveals itself later, I think," Milteer says. "And with Chuck's, as you'll see, you'll walk in and the materials themselves, the industrial nature of the materials, the relationship between the installations and the architecture around them is what hits you first, and then when you spend some time, you start to see this very deep foundation of Chuck's relationship with the landscape, with the natural landscape of Colorado, with family ..."

Indeed, Chuck's work is goes deep. Frankly, it can get complicated quickly.

The largest piece he's building for Continuance, "Still and Centered Point," is shaped like a cross lying horizontally. Framed by white I-beams, viewers will walk into it, and stop at the point of convergence, marked by a disc of diamond metal. Mounted on the walls around it are a series of drawings Chuck made of the landscape in southern Colorado (a private place where his family has a home). Certain points are encircled by plastic and focus in on that point in the 360-degree landscape.

Here's the underlying point: Chuck's obsessed with the horizon. After graduating from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Chuck toured the West, and discovered that's where he wanted to stay. He wanted to be "in" the horizon.

"That horizon gives me a sense of peace, so what I've attempted to do is frame that event in a singular small individual space.

"What is unique about this is, I've done zillions of site-specific installations across the country, [but] seldom have I had opportunity in my own home state to address the specifics of what inspires me here to an audience that knows how to look at the western horizon. If I exhibit this at Purdue University, if I exhibit this in Florida, or in New York, people will engage with it, but not with the same sensitivity. People out West understand the West."

How Chuck relates such ethereal themes with materials that would seem to be the antithesis of nature is part of what makes his work so compelling. And what makes Continuance compelling is that it's stretching the legs of both Parsons.

"It's like going to hear your favorite musician live and they compose a song just for that concert," Chuck says. "... there's nothing like how that can potentially touch the audience, because of the specificity of it. That comes from the freedom. I mean really, not to be patronizing, but I've worked with a whole lot of curators, and seldom has someone given this much freedom, saying, 'Alright, here's the works we've selected, now what are some of the surprises we can anticipate?'"

Milteer smiles. "Fooled 'em!"

At the gallery entrance, at the bottom of the grand staircase, Collin made a piece that's square and cut throughout with slots. Instead of encasing light, it's mirrored.

"A lot of times people, in some ways, are afraid of dark," Collin says. "They're just not used to looking at art in a darker environment, so this was my way of trying to experiment with the same kinds of ideas and concepts, without adding that internal light."

The geometry of the work (which, like all of Collin's works, is untitled) is interrupted by the play of the reflections upon it: The FAC's glass corridor, Floyd Tunson's "Haitian Dream Boats" and the group as we stand before it.

"It looks like it was made for this space," Chuck says. "I think the architect's probably going to come in and give you a hug."

Like the illuminated circle upstairs, this piece will look different all the time, Armstrong points out. As the sun moves, the weather changes, the seasons shift, it will all be reflected in the work, and break up the geometric framework with a constant supply of organic shapes.

Collin walks up and points at screws on the face of the piece that secure it to the wall. "And you'll notice, my dad and I love hardware," he says, "So I don't mind, much like you'll see in his work, having that hardware as part of the work."

"Getting back to the concert," says Chuck, "it's like, live, you hear the hand squeaking on the neck. People understand the hardware. People will intuitively want to adjust this."

Later, back upstairs, Collin plugs in the oldest work of his in the show, a 2010 square piece with a rotating color halo. It was Armstrong's idea to hang it at the end of the hallway, directly opposite the main entrance to the galleries.

Everyone stands in silence. Chuck's gone back into his gallery. Collin and I talk about his experience working so close to his father. Yes, they help each other and share tips, and yes they drive each other crazy, but all for the better.

"It's kind of a competition in a way, not a bad competition," he says, "but we keep on pushing each other a little bit, like, 'Oh, you're doing that? I gotta make something bigger, then.'"

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