Contemporary Collection

By Margaret Regan

IT'S PROBABLY SAFE to say that the George McCullough Cash Award for the Best Work in Metal in the Arizona Biennial has never before gone to art that's made out of straight pins. Or underpants.

This year it did. Specifically, the metal prize went to 90,000 metal pins, each endowed with a fake pearl head, and thrust into a big pair of underpants. Proudly arrayed on a sculptural pedestal, the pearls transform the knickers' cloth surface into a sea of glittering white globes; the innards become an uninhabitable forest of dangerously sharp points. (You can see the pointy ends of the pins by peeking into the underpants' leg and waist openings.) Artist Angela Ellsworth of Phoenix dreamed up an apt title for a piece meticulously composed of 90,001 separate parts: "My Compulsion Is Your Consumption."

Her prickly oeuvre is one of some 120 works by 70 artists in the big Tucson Museum of Art Arizona Biennial '99, an every-other-year juried event that showcases art from throughout the state. Ellsworth is not alone in using materials that wield the shock of the new.

Feature John Franzone of Klondyke arranged metal car parts into a vicious pooch ("Junk Yard Dog") and Maggie Leininger of Phoenix has lined up 144 wax-cast dish-detergent bottles on the floor ("Women Marching"), their pale pastel formation evoking a depressing lifetime of dishwashing. A giant latex condom, "Created Identities: Safe Sex Portrait" by Gregory Sale of Phoenix, formerly of Tucson, hangs on a wall, and a real-cloth Little Red Riding outfit is given a decent burial in a black coffin in Tucsonan Kelly McGehee's "Fairy Tale 26: LRC (fragments)."

Even the best of show juror's purchase awards went to the outré. "Sparkler," a pointy, silver-cloth soft sculpture stitched by Julia Latané, director of Tucson's infant Museum of Contemporary Art, is vaguely reminiscent of Miss Liberty's crown. Michael Campbell's "Buff" is a dangling bristly brush in strident red and green.

Nowhere at all is there anything remotely resembling a cowboy on a horse, nor even a more up-to-date abstracted rendering of the Sonoran landscape in thick oils. No reworkings of Mexican folk craft either, and hardly any gorgeously printed black-and-white photographs. In fact, with its real cake and oranges, animated subway video, foam-rubber sea monsters and 365 vitamin bottles in latex (Sale again), '99's look bears no resemblance to the aesthetic of Biennials past.

In recent years, the Biennials have been selected by three-person juries, resulting in gentlemanly but slightly addled conglomerations of every conceivable art trend in the state. Hand-crafted tables stood among desert-inspired paintings, manipulated photos shared space with fine gelatin silver prints. Usually a wrangler or two, in paint or bronze, popped up among the avant-garde installations, standing faithful sentinel to the enduring popularity of cowpoke art. Not this year.

What's going on?

THE SHORT ANSWER is that the museum's last biennial of the 20th century was juried by a single person, and that person happens to be the director and curator of SITE Santa Fe, a cutting-edge New Mexico arts space that's about four years old. The 40-something Louis Grachos has spent his whole career working with what he calls "advanced" contemporary art, interning at New York's Whitney Museum, curating at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art. And the works he chose for the TMA, the cloth sculptures, the found objects, the noisy board game, are right in sync with the avant-garde elsewhere in the U.S. and in Europe.

"It's work that is very informed," Grachos declares by telephone from his Santa Fe home. "People living in Phoenix, Tucson or small Arizona towns are engaged in ideas and shifts that are international. These people are committed to art and challenging the convention. Instead of a regional dialogue there are artists like this."

The long answer has to do with the whole sweep of 20th-century art. Such works as Christine Sandifur's three-dimensional "Tea Party," a table and chairs set for a trio of disembodied dresses, may be puzzling to a general Tucson audience, but in 1999 such work already has deep art-historical roots.

"Duchamp in the '20s was doing 'ready-mades,' " Grachos says. "There's no direct linkage but the idea of the ready-mades still prevails. Think of the collages by Picasso and Braque (in the teens). Painting could be more than oil on canvas, sculpture could be more than carving marble. These ideas have been brewing.

"In the late '80s, there was a shift in creation, in the use of made and found materials.... Today there's a commitment to extending the material as far as it will go.... The doors have been flung open."

TMA curator Joanne Stuhr, who invited Grachos to judge the show, made a deliberate choice to abandon the group jurying for a single judge with a definite point of view.

"I like this show," she says. "It has a nice, clean vision. It's very easy to tell it's one juror. (Multiple) jurying is often a compromise. If one person is particularly strong, the others' (viewpoint) can get washed out."

Stuhr agrees with Grachos that materials are now the frontier of art.

"The feeling of this whole century, the latter part anyway, has been questioning, redefining what art is, pushing things to the very limit," Stuhr says. "That's happened in a number of ways: simplifying the picture plane. Abstraction. It just goes further and further and further. One of the last territories to test in that way was media.

"It's not so easy to define what art is anymore. It's not confined to a picture plane or the top of a pedestal. Or to paint, acrylic, marble, whatever. Certainly within the last 30 years those definitions have been torn apart."

Arizona artists have been experimenting with new media for years, of course. They've responded to their own time by working with the deluge of mass-produced objects among which all of us frenzied consumers live, and purloining the new computer and video technologies that have altered human life forever. The TMA has occasionally dipped its toe into this new genre pool, notably in its New Directions series showcasing local artists, but this is its first major show.

"We're a little bit behind the trend," Stuhr acknowledges. "Nobody's working with chocolate or meat although we do have cake. It is a real cake, and real oranges."

The food, more benign than the real-meat art that shocked London audiences last year, is part of a video installation and mixed-media piece in the Biennial called "Marked for Happiness" by Tucsonan Vikki Dempsey. For some years Dempsey has run the summertime VideoTensions series at the UA; this past winter she debuted "Marked" at the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art at HazMat Gallery. One of its three videos--narrative works about the artist, her mother, grandmother, and such issues as food and weight and health--is embedded in a layer cake.

"It's a different cake, new cake and new oranges," Stuhr says. "At HazMat Gallery, somebody took a piece (of cake). Vikki liked that."

EATS ASIDE, THERE'S still room for conventional materials in the elastic aesthetic of Biennial '99, including paintings recognizable as paintings. Peter Young, Bisbee resident and recent exhibitor at Tucson's Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, is showing three acrylic and graphite works on canvas, all of them delicate, flatly painted abstractions. "#56-1998" is a rhythmic swirl of interlocking circles and ovals. Greens fill in some of the shapes, others are left blank.

Olivier Mosset, a Swiss painter who's moved to Tucson, goes way beyond Young in flatness. Not a single brushstroke is detectable in his two large canvases, earlier versions of which were seen at HazMat last winter in the MOCA opening show. Mosset also shoves his canvases beyond the usual rectangle: "May Day" is rounded at top and bottom, and "Untitled" is pointed.

The spareness of Mosset's paint, so unlike the vigorous expressionism of many Tucson painters, comes out of "a strong tradition of monochrome or field painting over the last 30 years," Grachos says. "At the time Olivier started showing internationally (there was a) dialogue of how far painting can be pushed. It's still happening.

"The magic in his painting is his incredible use of color. He has an incredible capacity to achieve an aura of meditation. They're beautiful, formal objects. They function as much as sculpture as painting."

The same might be said of Alice Briggs' "A True and Correct Copy," a genre-crossing painting on low wood relief. The wood is shallowly carved and painted, and the gorgeous warm gold of the scraped wood becomes a color in the painting. The painting itself, all grays and whites, however, is about as far from Mosset's minimalism as possible. It's a sumptuous, ambiguous narrative, an evocation of a medieval factory, complete with workers, wheels and trusses, and bodies mysteriously wrapped up in cloth. Incidentally, real-metal fencing jutting out from the painted wood allowed this work to share the metal prize with Ellsworth's straight pins.

You'd hardly guess that a piece like Latané's silvery cloth crown counts as painting, but to Grachos it proves the point that painting is more than oil on canvas.

"Painting is reinventing itself all the time," Grachos says. "(Latané is) someone taking modest textiles, following the traditions of art, and coming up with a new language or form."

Her new language is cheap, shiny, mass-produced fabric, stitched together--ironically--in the timeless way of women's traditional crafts. And her form is three-dimensional, sculptural, liberated from the flat picture plane. "Sparkler" is like painting, and it's not.

IT'S TEMPTING TO interpret the strong showing of the MOCA group as a sign of generational change on the Tucson art scene. Their works usually are seen in alternative spaces, in the rickety HazMat warehouse hard by the railroad tracks, in the Cherry gallery on grungy Grant. Now they're spiffed up in a glossy museum, outsider gone insider.

Sale, Dempsey and Mosset all reprised works from the MOCA opening in the Biennial. Photographer Joseph Labate made it into the Biennial and into last month's MOCA show. Museum founders Latané and photographer James Graham both did well in the Biennial. Prizewinner Latané got three soft sculptures accepted; Graham is showing two c-print photographs. Each of them pictures vivid figures set against deep black.

The MOCA artists are indeed tapped into the national trends, Stuhr says.

"It's a museum that's started by artists," she says. "They know young artists, and they went to school with a number of the artists represented in the show. They've made a very deliberate and effective effort to identify the artists who are producing interesting work in the Tucson area. Fortunately for this museum, a lot of those same artists entered this show."

But Stuhr says it would be reading too much into the overlap to declare a changing of the Tucson guard. Older, established artists usually don't enter the Biennial competition; they see it as a forum for new artists in need of exposure. And along with Arizona artists who ply straight pins, there are still plenty who work within conventional genres: painters who paint with paint, photographers who prize the fine print.

"It's very much a simultaneous trend," Stuhr says. "We see that in Tucson. There are still people who have been painting all their lives who are very committed to it. But even in the new group of younger artists (some) are very dedicated to painting."

The artists who entered the competition were well aware of the predilections of curator Grachos. His reputation as a connoisseur of the cutting edge doubtless kept away at least some traditionalists. A different curator in two years may very well produce a very different Biennial. But not necessarily.

"We'll try and do a kind of balance in the jurors we select," Stuhr says. "But it is a contemporary show."

Arizona Biennial '99 continues through Sunday, July 11, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors or students. Free for children under 12, for members, and on Tuesdays, free for everybody. For more information call 624-2333. TW

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