Luis Jiménez is the best-known artist in the annual Small Works show at Davis Dominguez, this year given the clever title Small Things Considered.
But Jiménez's piece, "Abu Ghraib Study," doesn't fit in with the general lightheartedness of the annual summer invitational, which gathers together tiny works by a multitude of artists. The artists are under orders to make their paintings no larger than 12 inches square, and their sculptures no taller than 18 inches high.
Nationally known for his gigantic public-art pieces inspired by Mexican motifs—his monumental fiberglass alligators inhabit a plaza in his native El Paso—the late Jiménez certainly scaled down in this tiny lithograph. Our annual contest, the Sizeys, normally gives goofy awards to the best of the small works in this big show. Jiménez's work demands a new category, though. Call it Best Serious Political Art.
The ugliness of the piece's subject matter—torture and confinement in the infamous American-run prison in Iraq—contrasts painfully with its beauty. Slanting gray lines sketch out a jail cell with a dimly lit window at the far end. Three prisoners are tethered in the foreground. One leans against a wall; one squats on the floor; the third dangles upside down from the ceiling. His feet are fastened overhead, and his body is slack with pain and despair.
At once the most moving and elegant piece in the 80-work exhibition, "Abu Ghraib Study" is not the show's only political art. John Salgado covers a political tragedy closer to home: the deaths of migrants in the Arizona desert, earning for himself the nod for Serious Political Art Runner-up.
Salgado's assemblage, "Dolorosa/Inmigración," is constructed inside a splintery found box as rough as the trails that border-crossers travel. Nails and sticks are scattered inside. Glued to the back is a found print of a grieving mother, not unlike the mater dolorosa of the old Latin hymn about Mary at the foot of the cross. This dolorosa holds her dead child in her hands. And well might she mourn: Migrant deaths are on pace to outstrip last year's toll. Between Oct. 1, 2009 (the start of fiscal year 2010) and April 30, 110 bodies had been found.
Artist Having the Roughest Time With Arizona's New Immigration Bill: Tucson's premier glass artist, Tom Philabaum, occasionally deviates from the elegance of pure glass to mix his media, using thick, untamed brushes to add energetic color. His feisty "Wild Dogs" is a tall blown-glass goblet painted with enamel. A trio of painted comic-book dogs scamper around the globular goblet, crossing bright-green grass under a yellow sky.
Their dogged persistence might well be a metaphor for Philabaum's own. He recently got the bad news that the Glass Art Society has canceled its national conference planned for Tucson in April 2011, as a protest against Arizona's new anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. Philabaum had been working on the project for years, lining up the town's galleries and museums to put on glass shows. But he's already picked up the shards and is now energetically promoting a homegrown Glass Fiesta in place of the national extravaganza.
Paintings That Make You Glad You Live in the West: Despite the political uproar in the region, plenty of the Small Things artists considered its beauty. Debra Salopek, a perennial Sizeys winner for her masterly landscapes in oil, has painted a gorgeous stormy day, "Study of a Landscape," with a huge dark cloud sweeping in across the big sky. Below, on the horizon, the low-lying mountains are mostly a muted blue-gray, but a streak of sunlight brightens the slope. And the more you look at it, the more you see pale yellows and pinks breaking through the cloud cover, bringing the land back to the light.
Eric Twachtman's "Devil's Canyon" is a loosely painted mixed media on board, so loose that his landscape's familiar features border on abstraction. The colors also transform the desert's reality. The dancing saguaros are neon green, and the background is a surprising chocolate brown, interrupted here and there by deep pink. Orange zigzags over the hills.
David Brown's "Cactus Dream" is a teeny, tiny charcoal drawing that is mysteriously 3-D: It zooms into the microscopic level, replicating in deep gray and white a cactus's furrowed skin. "Coronado" by Robert Cocke is minuscule, too, but it takes the long view: Rust-colored mountains stretch out into infinity under a pink and blue sky.
Best Golden Yellow: Two artists go head to head for best use of the warm tones of adobe, an ocher tinged by peach. In "Backroad to Taos," watercolorist Barbara Smith made a simple rendition of an old adobe building. Her transparent peachy yellows stain the paper, sketching out the geometric walls, darkening for the shadows and rounding for the curves. Tim Murphy, who wins almost every year for Best Green or Best Yellow, puts up a good fight here with his "Little Steps." This sumptuous oil on linen is less about the stairs to nowhere in the center of the painting than it is about the glories of thick, sun-kissed gold. Call it a tie.
Best Twin Abstractions: Josh Goldberg and Sheila Fox both draw on the same atypical palette: black, maroon, white and gray. Goldberg, unheralded master of the lush abstraction, paints his "Nanga" in thin acrylic on paper, mimicking watercolor. Big swathes of maroon and gray paint careen over the surface of the small square. Fox's "Rodeo and Lariats" is inspired by the swirl and gesture of the cowboy arena, though her rich colors are far from the dust and dun of the ring. She's got zigzag lines spinning through space—the trajectory of the rope, no doubt. Acrylic is her medium, too, but hers is thick and juicy, conjuring the impasto of oil paint.
Best Hammer: No contest here. Mary Rogot's "Nailed It" is the most realistic clay hammer anyone could ever hope to see. And since we're coming into summer, let's give Jim Waid the nod for Best Bug. His "Whirring Wings #7" is a spectacular specimen, an acrylic painting of a creature with a bright blue body and pink and purple wings. Cy Lehrer gets Best Blinds for his "GJA #10," a photo that sets a collection of black-and-white blinds—useful for warding off the summer sun—inside a Mondrian-like grid of yellow, orange and black lines.
Best Summer Celebration: Colorado artist Amy Metier contributes the lighthearted "French Study." A nice collage of paint and papers printed with French text, inlaid in a pen-and-ink grid, it's reminiscent of the cheerful paintings of Frenchman Raoul Dufy. With its flag-like patches of red, white and blue, Metier's work suggests a Gallic street celebration—the upcoming Bastille Day, perhaps.
Best Way to Get Through Hard Times: Tucson native Jan Olsson actually lives in France and loves to paint human figures in the confined spaces of her adopted city of Paris. Her monotype "Spinning" pictures an angular woman at a spinning wheel. Outlined in black, and colored here and there in oranges, ochers and taupes, the woman has a slight smile playing about her lips as she steadfastly turns her wheel, keeping busy at her task.
"Spinning" is a wise work. It suggests that one way to cope with the setbacks and sorrows of life, the deaths and wars and political turmoil, is to just keep on keeping on, to get up every day and to do what has to be done.