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The Art of the Unexpected 

Liz Hernández brings surprising contemporary art to an area known for stereotypical 'Southwest' fare

Ireland inspired Ann Tracy-Lopez's latest series of paintings, but her jewel-bright oils on canvas don't exactly evoke the island nation's famous green hills.

"And Lays Them in a Row" is a large abstraction in yellow, pink and purple, its single quick band of green below a field of blue the only concession to the emerald-ness of the isle. According to Liz Hernández, who's showing the artist in her eponymous foothills gallery, the work evokes Ireland's numerous stone ruins, the old castle keeps and forts that have crumbled through the centuries but not disappeared.

A trio of lozenge-shaped rocks is arranged vertically on the right side of the large canvas, while the deep-sea blue is on the left. Above both is a deft spread of color that glows pink when you look at it from one direction, and yellow from another. With the sea color juxtaposed against the stone, the painting conjures up places like the fort of Dun Aenghus on the Aran Islands, where the stones hauled by ancient Celts still preside on a cliff, hundreds of feet above the crashing Atlantic.

But there's nothing hokey about Tracy-Lopez's work. She's a fine formalist who carefully structures her canvases, arranging large color fields against patches of blank white. And her shimmering color, metamorphosing as it does into new shades in the changing light, is not quite like anything I've seen before. An administrator at the Arizona Daily Star and a former member of Dinnerware, Tracy-Lopez is "one of my artists to watch," Hernández says gleefully, "along with Jeffrey Jonczyk and Don West."

Art that's unexpected--abstract paintings of Ireland that don't look like Ireland, Jonczyk's crayon-bright abstractions on plywood, West's Motherwell-inspired splashes of black, red and white on paper--is what Hernandez is aiming for.

She started her gallery of contemporary art last October in an unlikely location, on Kolb Road in the tourist zone just south of Ventana Canyon. Most foothills galleries, particularly those at El Cortijo at Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue, cater to visitors longing for "Southwest" paintings of cowboys or bronzes of Indians. But Hernández has a rebel slogan: "No cowboy art."

"I'm not interested in traditional academic art," says Hernández, who studied art history. "It's beautiful, and so is cowboy art, but my particular aesthetic is post-post-post-modernist."

She thinks it's an advantage to be showing edgy art in this location.

"It's sort of off the beaten path" for contemporary art, which clusters mostly downtown. "But I want to differentiate the work of my artists. People come in expecting cowboy art and they say, 'God, this is so refreshing.' They're surprised and pleased."

Her biggest buyers are sophisticated, well-heeled newcomers who have bought second homes in Tucson. They have houses to fill, and generally, "They've traveled. They've looked at other art."

Hernández has served on numerous community boards downtown--she's on the Tucson Pima Arts Council board right now, and she's been with KXCI, Chicanos por la Causa and Teatro Libertad in the past--and five years ago did a stint running the gallery at Hacienda del Sol.

"For a long time I've been involved with the arts community, and I'm a big supporter of downtown," she says. "But I've had friends start galleries there, and then they're gone."

For the artists in her stable, most of them from Tucson, her gallery is a welcome new outlet for their art--and a welcome way to reach buyers who might not want to venture downtown. Along with Tracy-Lopez, a number of the artists--Lucinda Young, Betina Fink, Nadia Hbilka and Michael Chittock among them--are alumni of the Dinnerware co-op. Hernández accepts only artists who have been working for a minimum of five years, artists who are "serious, committed, evolving. They're not going away."

The current show offers a sampling of the 20 or so she's signed up in the last year. One of the finest paintings is by one of the longest-working artists, octogenarian Mildred Lachman-Chapin. A dancer back in the '50s and '60s, Lachman-Chapin also exhibited her paintings in those years, in Rome, Paris, Turkey and California. Her most recent work, just completed, is "Past Faces," an oil and mixed media on board. Divided into a grid of rectangles separated by deliciously thick hillocks of paint, the work has a gold underpainting shining through bright reds, yellows and grays. Collaged into some of the rectangles are tiny, beautifully painted fragments of faces.

The talented young painter Stephanie Shank is showing four small, stylized Western landscapes, "Journeys #1-4." These classic panoramas--big skies over mountains over desert--dissolve into fluid, painterly strokes of purple, green and cerulean. Likewise, Fink, a Rancho Linda Vista artist and teacher at the Drawing Studio, uses the big desert sky of her painting "Gates" as an excuse to experiment with every possible shade of yellow, from lemon to ochre, and every possible turn of the brush.

But Jonczyk's "Shuffled Series #1" is perhaps the most exhilarating. It's like a rebel with an art cause, an outrageous piece of bad-boy art. Painted onto two raw pieces of plywood, its flat colors scream out bright blue and orange. Black lines careen graffiti-like on top, tracing out weird ovals and spaceship shapes. Jonczyk has shown in town before, in downtown's now-closed Industry and in 3Falk, but he's never had the success he deserves. In his sleek new berth in the foothills, tucked in between two chi-chi eateries, he's the most unexpected artist in an unexpected enterprise.

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