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Forging Ahead 

The Plaza Palomino sculpture show goes way beyond wind chimes and garden gnomes.

Late on a recent Saturday afternoon, when clouds descended on Tucson and the air grew damp, a couple of blacksmiths were warming up at the back of their pickup truck.

David Flynn and Ralph Montenegro had done a demo of their smithy skills at Plaza Palomino, as a part of the festivities marking the shopping center's quirky outdoor sculpture show. Now they were all packed up and ready to go, but safety demanded that they wait for their tools to cool. In the meantime, the heat generated by their equipment lured curious passers-by with chilly hands.

"You want to see art? Come on over and see this," Montenegro said, offering up not only a hand-forged metallic rose for inspection, but a few free minutes by the toasty tools. Both men said they are members of the Arizona Artists Blacksmiths Association; many of its members are what Flynn called "master blacksmiths." But while most of the smiths here in town handle such traditional jobs as decorative gates and grilles, a few have ventured into non-functional art. Flynn, for instance, is exhibiting two pieces in the sculpture show: an eccentric hand-forged tricycle suitable for placement in a garden, and a wagon welded together out of pipes.

His whimsical creations--the wagon was loaded up with potted plants--are just two of the inventive sculptures occupying every outdoor nook and cranny in the upscale plaza. Coordinated by the contemporary crafts gallery Details & Green Shoelaces, this show of art for the garden features some 69 works by 21 artists. Its sophisticated works are light years from the unlamented wind chimes of yesteryear. And while the sculpture show gives a nod to the relationship between old-time functional smithing and contemporary metal art, it more often highlights their dizzying differences.

Most of the artists have left conventional metal motifs far behind and forged ahead into such wild creations as metallic abstractions of outer space (Steven Derks), a giant "Lizarace" playing a piano made out of recycled plumbing parts (Steve Novak) and elegant metal-and-glass geometries that cast colored reflections on nearby walls (Peter H. Korbel). Adept at both abstract and figurative work, Korbel is one of the most versatile artists in the invitational show.

"Circus Reflection," one of his glass pieces, has an openwork grid punctuated by translucent discs casting their reds and violets and yellows onto a shop's stucco façade. Another work, "City-Play," a dense urban collection of cubic volumes in spray-painted screen, is like a sophomore's geometry problem come to 3-D life. But Korbel also delights in rendering the organic world of plants and animals into rusty metal, in pieces not too far in sensibility from Montenegro's rose. "Kingfisher in Water," in earthy rust tones, features a charming hammered metal bird sitting in a thicket of pond reeds. If you look carefully, you can see fish and even a turtle darting among the stems.

At 16 pieces, Derks has more works in the show than any other artist. His ethereal evocations of the stratosphere are incongruously located in the narrow strip between the plaza buildings and Swan Road's midwinter traffic snarls. Derks cuts orbs and triangles and lightning shapes out of flat metal, paints them in rainbow reds, yellows and blues, and fastens them together in clever compositions suggestive of outer space. "Element Driven" soars 7 feet into earth's atmosphere, its jazzy cerulean lightning streak aimed up into the universe beyond. "Blue Ring Revealed," one of his loveliest, has a golden sphere at the base, and a blue orbit hoop piercing a slice of upward-bound orange metal.

Not all the artists use metal. Skya Nelson has shaped fiberglass into a tall vaguely female form doing the yogic "Sunrise Salutation," fiber optic wire circling round her curves. Daniel Downing exhibits two giant-sized chess sets in ceramic, both apparently durable enough to be placed in a garden for some combo aerobic and cerebral exercise. John Watts uses arcane plumbing parts and carpenters' tools in saw-toothed circular abstractions like "Bell Star." (He did a wind chime too, but it's decently behaved.)

Steve Kandik has crafted huge wood-and-metal figures inspired by Northwest Indian totem poles. His "Blue-Green Thunder," about 12 feet tall, has a stylized eagle's head of carved wood and wings of corrugated metal.

More offensive is Jerry Harris' "Guardian of the White Buffalo." Mixing his Native American cultural metaphors, Harris made a gigantic metal Hopi kachina, studded by nine low-relief metal buffalo, the animal prized by the Plains Indians. This goofy piece, which seems designed for an uninformed tourist market, is a failed mélange of artistic styles, too: The simple kachina shapes clash dramatically with the realistic buffaloes.

But mostly this show is a playful pleasure. Who wouldn't want to have one of the cheerful pieces from Carl Heldt's "Pylon in the Desert" series out in their back yard? This affable collection, colored in lively pastels, is like a variation on Pick-Up-Sticks, the old game in which children dumped colored sticks into piles and tried to untangle them without knocking the whole thing down. In Heldt's capable hands, the game is writ large, and his large metallic sticks tumble onto each other in infinitely various, and infinitely pleasing, configurations. They're like the whole enterprise of metallic sculpture: There's no end to its possibilities.

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