Two of the most recent protagonists in this continuing drama, a pair of galleries committed to showing contemporary art, have settled in locations at the city's geographic extremes.
Industry is in the old urban center, in a renovated auto showroom in the Warehouse District, while Arte Spazio occupies an anonymous commercial space at River and Oracle roads on Tucson's sprawling edge. But both profess similar goals: to show art more challenging than the offerings in tourist galleries, but not so challenging that anyone with a wallet turns heel and runs.
"We are trying to remain faithful to our original dream," says Corinne Asti, the French-born co-owner of Arte Spazio, which opened in the spring. "The idea is to avoid commercial, decorative art, the kind of easy art that can be found in many galleries here and in Europe as well ... (but) for now, we are sticking to figurative art that is not too difficult to understand."
Susan Delaney, a visual artist who opened Industry in August with fellow artist Dawn Renée, says that she originally thought their gallery ought to shy away from "at risk" art. But four months in the biz have taught her to trust her own instincts.
"I'm learning that it's OK to show work you love," she says. "Still, it's important to find a balance between emotionally charged artwork and solid business sense. We have passed on some artists we love, whose work would be hard for people to buy and live with."
Industry deliberately goes for a mix of artists, from Tucson and from out of town. Photographer José Galvez of Tucson, painters Francisco Rodriguez and Matt Lisenby, and sculptor Beth Guinter are all on this season's schedule. New York photographer John Maggiotto will get a show in February, and Tucsonans James Graham, a photographer, and Julia Latané, a sculptor, will exhibit together in May. The gallery artists are "emerging and mid-career artists and established artists," Delaney explains. "We keep a variety of artists on the roster, but it's all non-Southwestern art."
Industry staked out a space in a corner of the old Firestone building at Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street at the edge of downtown. Like its neighbors, the Davis Dominguez, Raices Taller 222 and Watercolor galleries, Industry occupies a former industrial building. It's complete with distressed brick walls and 22-foot ceilings; one of its display rooms is fashioned out of a loading dock.
The current show's raw color abstractions, by Tucson painter Jeffrey Jonczyk, are a perfect match for the urban scene outside the big plate glass windows. Painted on throwaway cardboard and plywood, Jonczyk's jazzy colors--maroon, lemon, cerulean, olive--dance across geometric symphonies of curving lines and squat rectangles. Black and white photos by Philadelphia photographer Jenny Lynn make up the show's other half. Most of them picture single objects in an iconography that repeats from photo to photo--pyramid, a palm tree, a hand, a woman's hair. But one of the images lines up nicely with Industry's urban space: A young woman lounges on a Philadelphia rooftop, the city's skyline of old brick fading off into the distance.
The grandly named Arte Spazio (art space) is in perhaps the town's unlikeliest spot for a vendor of eclectic art. Alighting in a tangle of traffic-clogged chain stores and parking lots near the Tucson Mall, the brave new gallery is in a vast storefront at the rear of HomeTown Buffet. Founded by a couple of transplanted Europeans, Arte Spazio has high ambitions. "Much more than an art gallery: it is an international cultural space where painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, poets and troubadours will exhibit, meet, perform and lecture," proclaims its mission statement. "Its aim is to establish a two-way cultural bridge between the Old and the New World."
The European artists on the roster include Ilir Zefi, who shows regularly in Rome; this summer he exhibited lush, expressionistic landscapes, figures and still lifes. Another, German artist Carl Timner, does classically inspired nudes. Jess Wallace, a British painter, right now has a one-person show of her monumental paintings of horses in oils on canvas and linen. A former jockey, Wallace pares the horses down to simple outlines and paints them in monochromes--a pale yellow horse on deep yellow background, for instance, in "Plein Soleil." Some of Wallace's works veer dangerously toward schmaltz, but the best of her painted horses have the simple allure of pictographs.
Asti and her partner, Italian-born Oscar Canham, have shown a few local artists. Sylvia Garland exhibited this summer, while Bernard Fiero, a fine Benson painter of simplified landscapes, and the well-known ceramic artist Andrew Rush have agreed to show their work in the coming year. Asti was hoping to get more locals, but the gallery's newness has scared some off, she says. "Most of the artists I approached already have contracts with Tucson galleries," Asti says, but she remains hopeful that in time she'll sign on more Tucson artists.
Asti and Canham both have degrees in political science--Asti studied at UCLA and at Johns Hopkins--and they met in Paris, when they both held jobs at the Western European Union. They'd vacationed in Tucson before coming here permanently, and Asti even worked on a Southern Arizona ranch. "She liked the land, its colors and shapes," Canham says. "Here something reminds her of the south of France."
Distressed that the gallery location scares off patrons, they regret that they didn't listen to their gut instinct to put their new gallery downtown.
"Maybe we could have been a little more careful," Canham says. "We didn't know Tucson. The former owner told us that the galleries are downtown; there'd be no competition here."
Canham is trying to make the space pay by building up a banquet business. More than one wedding has already been held in the big white room, which boasts café tables and a European coffee bar at the far end. While Asti works the art end, they're keeping an eye out for a new space downtown, in hopes of drawing a larger audience.
But downtown is no guarantee of instant success in the chancey art world. Industry has joined the Central Tucson Gallery Association. Still, for all the hipness of Industry's location, Delaney says, "We're not getting as much foot traffic as we thought we would. ... We do have people stopping in, but I don't know if people are hopping into their cars and coming downtown. It's such a challenge."
Industry, 439 N. Sixth Ave., exhibits paintings by Jeffrey Jonczyk and photographs by Jenny Lynn through Sunday, January 28. Holiday hours, in effect until after New Year's, are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Regular hours are noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information call 792-2620.
For other art exhibits, check the listings on page 22.