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Pure Beauty 

Conrad Wilde Gallery braves construction and the summer heat with a greatest-hits exhibition

Old zippers, teabags, PVC pipe, plastic toys, squished-up rolls of toilet paper: Take one look at that list, and you might guess somebody's been inventorying the trash heap.

You'd be wrong, though. All of these ingredients, and more, are starring in the summer art show at Conrad Wilde Gallery. Celebrating its third season as an oasis of innovation, the gallery recaps the nine exhibitions of the past year with an encore exhibition.

"It's a salon of the past season with the addition of a couple of new artists," says associate director Ryan Wilde. "We like to focus on innovation, on minimal abstraction."

Each artist who exhibited in the past year has gotten a chance for another airing, with everybody displaying a small number of works. Newcomers Carrie Seid and Mauricio Toussaint get the place of honor near the door.

It's a wonderful show, well worth braving the construction on lower Fourth Avenue. The street is blocked off to traffic, but pedestrians can still walk down to the gallery and the Book Stop, the neighboring secondhand bookstore. When the work's done, the trolley will pass right by the gallery and bookstore on its way to downtown, creating what ought to be a happening über-urban space.

"In the long run, it will be good," Wilde says.

Meantime, back to that toilet paper. Jessica Drenk is the innovator who makes sculptural wall works out of that lowliest of materials. But the toilet-paper pieces are unexpectedly alluring. Drenk takes a bunch of rolls--nine in "Soft Cell Tissue #21," three in "#22"--compresses them and then arranges them into artful patterns in a small square frame. The holes in the central cardboard tube are no longer circles--they're squashed ovals--and their blackness contrasts with the white of the splayed paper.

Drenk hardens up the whole thing with wax tinted brown, maybe not the best choice of color, considering. But she succeeds in making this human-made product look like something organic, like the cells of the title.

She does the same thing with old books. She slices out thick swathes, shapes them into curves with the pages splayed, and fossilizes them up with tea-colored wax. Making a nod to paper's arboreal origins, they resemble carved chunks of tree trunks.

Her newest work, though, relies wholly on the artificial: plastic PVC pipes. Drenk's a pretty good hand with cutting tools, and she deftly carves through the plastic, cutting out austere designs in some sections while allowing the remainder of the tubes to remain intact. Then she lines the pipes into rectangles. The biggest, "Erosion 15," is almost 6 feet high. Its 34 narrow pipes are squeezed together vertically, the cutouts forming a shadowy pattern of dark and light.

David Adix is the artist handy with zippers and toys. He wraps them in wire to make attenuated human figures, with pinheads and impossibly elongated limbs. For "Seated Native Figure," Adix found bags of zippers at a secondhand clothing store. Picking out only those in Easter Parade pinks and fuschias, he bound them with wire to make the jaunt figure that perches on the gallery's front desk. The standing "Native Figure" is a menagerie of toy snakes and flies tamed into the shape of a human being.

Rodney Thompson is the tea (and coffee) fancier. He arranged teabags in a checkerboard pattern, and embedded teabags into thick layers of encaustic colored by coffee. The resulting "Tea and Coffee #14" is both meticulous and lovely. The craftsmanship of all three of these artists is impeccable. Their challenge to standard art materials isn't especially novel, but the appeal of their work lies in the contrast between their high-art skills and their low-rent materials.

But even the artists using more conventional media push them in new directions. John Dempcy dilutes acrylic paints with water, then uses an eyedropper to deposit the thin-colored liquid onto wet panels. The colors--orange, copper and ochre in "Fireside"--radiate outward into blurry-edged circles.

Robert Moya gets equally lovely results by pushing water acrylics in the opposite direction. He layers and layers the paints until they form a hard, thick surface, then cuts them down into rectangles that look for all the world like ceramic tiles. Finally, he reassembles the colored pieces into elegant mosaics.

Gallery founder Miles Conrad is an encaustics artist who's helped jumpstart an encaustics revival in town after moving here from Seattle. Margaret Suchland, who doubles as an inventive book artist, uses encaustics as a top layer for works of pencils, crayon, ink and oil pastel. But Conrad sticks with his luscious waxy medium in its pure form. In a series of three 12-inch-square panels, he celebrates the wavy vertical stripe. "Return to Atlantis" is particularly enticing this hot time of year. Its stripes vary from grass to moss to deep-sea green, conjuring up the cooling waters of the ocean.

Toussaint, another plyer of the encaustics trade, may be new to the gallery, but he's been long active on the local scene. He etches elusive drawings into his wax, and colors it sparingly. "La Alegria" incorporates a mysterious head and a bird: The head is a simple black outline against the white background, but the cardinal is blood-red. The bird is likely a good omen announcing the joy of the title: It holds a message in an envelope in its beak.

More abstract is the other new gallery artist, the accomplished Seid, who has shown in the Tucson Museum of Art Biennial, the UA and elsewhere. She makes her Wilde debut with three of her always marvelous mixed-media works, colored silk stretched across shaped copper and birch wood. The translucent silks are in impossibly rich reds and oranges. Their color changes depending on the shadows cast by the sculptural shapes below.

It's a little bit old-fashioned to make homages to pure beauty, but that's what Seid does. And come to think of it, so do plenty of these other artists. Their artistry makes trash and recyclables a match for Seid's glistening silks and glowing copper.

More by Margaret Regan

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