World Above, World Below 

A playful installation at Joseph Gross’s conjures up a fantasyland

click to enlarge “Fireweather: The Dark Forest of Crystal Burn,” mixed-media installation by Roy Wasson Valle, Koryn Woodward Wasson and Jaime Chandler, detail

“Fireweather: The Dark Forest of Crystal Burn,” mixed-media installation by Roy Wasson Valle, Koryn Woodward Wasson and Jaime Chandler, detail

A fantasy forest is occupying Joseph Gross Gallery.

Sort of.

The installation by two Phoenix artists, Roy Wasson Valle and Koryn Woodward Wasson, and one Tucsonan, Jaime Chandler, has a woodsy name—"Fireweather: The Dark Forest of Crystal Burn."

But its structures don't look like trees. Nor are they dark, or burned.

Instead, the colors are cheerful and circus-like. Orange, pink and turquoise fill the gaily painted geometries on the gallery walls. The giant flying flowers—each with a single, staring eye—dangling from the ceiling are yellow and orange, and the light boxes inside them emit a nice glow.

If you were to squint, maybe you could persuade yourself that the installation's pièce de résistance—a huge vertical structure in the center of the room—is oak-like. But it isn't really.

It's a sculpture that's friendly looking but monster-sized, more electrified stela or fat totem pole than tree. A cube at its center is the portal to another world, the Fireweather Forest that lurks beneath our Sonoran Desert, according to the artists' wall text. Painted with mysterious symbols that apparently allude to the directions of the compass, north, south, east and west, the box's white panels are brightly lit by electricity from within.

Floating above the portal are heads joined together in a ring; each head painted blue, yellow and orange, shares an eye with its neighbor. They look a little like traditional Mexican or Yaqui masks, but they're meant to be the heads of the Stonewalls, the wise guardians of Fireweather.

Above the heads of these sages are dozens of serpents, the Shadow Snakes, which seem to be circling round and round, chasing one another's tails. They're black with scales rendered in pastel hues.

Below the portal is a cold fire, whose cloth flames burn ice blue and purple.

Around the bend from this fantasyland, the artists switch to near- realism. Ten pairs of "Gemini Birds," nicely painted in gouache and ink on paper, are all common to the Sonoran Desert -- Gambel's quails, hawks, woodpeckers, pigeons and so on.

Only one bird in each duo is painted as nature intended. The realistic quail, for instance, is black and brown-feathered, with a tidy red cap. Its fantasy companion, though, has sprouted an elaborate 'do, a feathered comb-over in red.

As curator Brooke Grucella points out, the mirror-image birds are in keeping with the theme of double worlds co-existing. "The fantasy version of the bird ... is on the otherside of the divide."

In a wall text, the artists explain this double fantasy in a complicated, almost incomprehensible tale about their characters -- the flowers, snakes and guardians -- undergoing sacrifice, death and rebirth. But the installation itself is more joyful than the back story would suggest.

Wasson Valle, the creator of most of the sculptural pieces, was born and raised in Cuernavaca, and there's something of the exuberance of Mexican folk art in his playful work. They remind me a bit of the art of the De La Torre brothers, glass artists who had a Tucson Museum of Art show a few years back, exhibiting wild sculptural constructions made of all kinds of found materials.

Wasson Valle's materials are not so much found as purchased on the cheap at craft stores. Defying the hierarchy of valued art materials, he uses not paint nor canvas nor stone, instead choosing colored gator board—like foam board, only firmer—plastic PVC pipes and screws, fabric and felt. Like a kid set loose in an art class, he makes constructions of childlike wonder.

The temporary murals by Chandler and Woodward Wasson, painted with house paint on the gallery walls, are less playful than beautiful. Their complex geometries of interlocking triangles and circles and arches spill from one wall to the next. Here and there the artists have outlined the shapes with strands of colored yarn; stretched taut, the yarns cast long shadow lines over the paint.

In one corner, they've created a shelter with a roof of orange and blood-red yarn strung in a triangle from one wall to the other. You go inside it and feel completely protected.

All the paintings are cut in two by a long horizon line, the divide between the desert and the forest, the real and the imagined.

"Above the line is the world as we know it," curator Grucella says. "Below the horizon, they've painted the fantasy world.".

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