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Guadalajaran Images 

A Sister City art experiment at Davis Dominguez offers both success and failure

A Sister City exhibit with Guadalajara, Mexico, has yielded mixed results.

Mounted at Davis Dominguez Gallery here in Tucson, the show features five Guadalajaran painters. One makes up-to-the minute graffiti art, and two do interesting abstraction. But another paints old-fashioned watercolors. Worst of all, still another does hokey surrealism.

These jarring juxtapositions probably owe something to the show's unusual genesis. The Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau initiated the exchange, in a goodhearted effort to tighten ties between Tucson and Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, in central-west Mexico.

The original plan, according to the gallery's Mike Dominguez, was to have a number of Tucson galleries exhibit Guadalajaran artists at the same time. That didn't pan out, and in the end, only Davis Dominguez signed on.

Dominguez and partner Candice Davis didn't travel to Mexico to get a firsthand look at the art. But "Guadalajara is a big art center for Mexico," Dominguez says, and by buttonholing contacts and surfing the Internet, they were able to put together a list of some 50 to 60 potential artists.

From there, "We found a dozen that would make a good show," Dominguez says. "Slowly but surely, we got it down to six," but then found that one of them, a Cuban artist living in Mexico, would not be available. Unfortunately, they never actually saw the art they'd be displaying until the crates arrived.

"When we were starting to unwrap, we were saying, 'Aren't these nice?'"

Indeed, the strongest artist in the show, Ismael Guardado, has made some very nice paintings. His six oils on canvas, lined up across one wall of the gallery, anchor the show. Born in 1942 in Zacatecas, Guardado studied art in the 1960s, but his work has a decidedly '50s look. He goes for big canvases, big gestures, earthy colors and abstraction with a figurative inspiration.

"Reina Signica," an oil on canvas, is maybe 5 feet by 5 feet. It's a bravura work, with a large central figure--the queen of the title--fractured into patterns. Her three heads hint at Picasso's "Three Musicians," a cubist painting from way back in 1921. But Guardado's colors and textures seem very Mexican: red geometric designs against gray, flashes of copper and gold.

The paint is thick and matte, without any sheen at all; it looks so dry that it could almost be a painting without oil, if that were possible. Guardado uses the pigment sculpturally, building up layers all the way into the third dimension. Then he digs deep into top layer, carving out patterns with the end of the brush, perhaps, or a finger, and leaving crevices behind.

"Sin Yunta" (without yoke) is an architectural work, painted in an intoxicating earth-red companionably joined by soft blacks, grays, ochers and white. Even larger than "Reina" at about 6 by 6 feet, the painting is a delicious panoply of geometric shapes--circle, rectangles, squares and swoops--suggesting the domes and buildings of a city. The yoke of the title is front and center, a tan curve sweeping across black. "Carnaval" is a carnival of bronzes and oranges, with a vague animal shape at bottom and dozens of tiny etched patterns of crisscrosses, stripes and circles.

While Guardado sticks to rich earth tones, Armando Melendez is happier with screaming greens and oranges. His loose, lyrical compositions are the opposite of Guardado's intricate constructions, and he's more willing to mix his media. "Le Jardin" (French for "the garden") even has glitter mixed into its joyous floral colors.

Its two main "figures" are two patches of pure color on the canvas, spring green above golden yellow, both set against a red background. But there are plenty of surfacey things going on--green and white paint drips down onto the yellow; loose black scribbles mar the red; and a thickener turns some passages grainy and sculptural.

"Azul" (blue) is all about blue, with a nod to its close cousin green. Blue-green lines drip all over a pale-blue lozenge shape, arranged horizontally. "Arboles" (trees) is a mixed media on paper that veers closer to watercolor. It's a lovely transparent abstraction--with a cerulean horizon line hinting at landscape--with dancing shapes in green and cerulean, against a hot ochre sky and an orange earth.

Tomás López Rocha's graffiti-comic book paintings suggest a younger artist. (Davis Dominguez got biographical info only on two of the painters.) His big canvases are peopled with strange little human figures, dragons, a bottle of alcohol, birds, horses and the like. "Proyecto para Escultura" (sculpture project) conjures up an art-school class, perhaps. A simplified female figure, colored only in black, sits near the center of a neutrally colored space. White lights shine onto her, while all around, tiny little men busy themselves with assorted preparations. Her stark figure at once suggests a Matisse-style cutout and a pre-Columbian stone sculpture.

Likewise, "2 de Julio" (Second of July), another oil on canvas, also deliberately relates to Mexican art traditions, while staying up to the minute. Thin streaks of blue and ocher paint stream down the canvas like rain, but in between, tiny line paintings conjure up multiple devils and monsters, not unlike the faces on Mexican masks.

The watercolorist Luis E. Gonzales deploys the most transparent of washes in his landscapes of the Mexican countryside. "Vista de Pajaros II" (bird vista) is indeed a dizzying bird's-eye view of a canyon, framed by green cliffs, sliced through by a river far below. Pale washes in gray and blue conjure up a shimmering lake, mountains and sky in "Lago Entero." Skilled as he is, Gonzales sticks strictly to tradition, bringing nothing particularly new or exciting to his genre. And he's put at a disadvantage by being shown alongside the far more exuberant Melendez.

The less said about Enrique Monraz, the better. He has only one painting in the show, and that's more than enough. "Especies" (species), an oil on canvas, merges the sexpot face of a young woman with the striped visage of a jaguar. This sultry combo being is in a cavelike setting, complete with a bubbly melting pool. It's straight out of a comic book, and not the cool kind. The guy can paint well enough, but what's the point if he makes cornball images like this?

This is only the first in a projected series of Sister City exchanges, and it may be unfair to come down too hard on an enterprise that's barely begun. Tucson artists are supposed to be up next. If and when the Old Pueblo gets its turn down in Guadalajara, let's hope we can run an all-thoroughbred team.

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