It Was A Year Of Transition, But Also Elation On The Local Arts Beat.
By Margaret Regan
THE CHORUS OF Handel Hallelujahs and Amens delivered by the Catalina Chamber Orchestra and singers in last week's Messiah brought the arts year to a triumphant end. People glanced around tentatively before taking to their feet for the Hallelujah chorus, but when they found the courage to leap up it was with a sense of awe that a work of art 256 years old could still move them to tears.
It would be more than cruel to judge Tucson artists by the Handel genius standard, but there's plenty to be proud of this year in the many varieties of Old Pueblo arts. Still, 1998 has been a transitional year. The Tucson Arts District has gone through convulsions, with 4-year-old Bero Gallery failing and that longtime stalwart, Café Magritte, shutting its doors on Congress Street. Huge crowds drive downtown for operas, concerts and plays at the Tucson Convention Center and the Temple of Music and Art, and right afterward zip back out, leaving a plume of auto exhaust hovering over the empty storefronts. The Downtown Business Alliance, the new Business Improvement District, may or may not be part of the answer to downtown's woes, but it started up unpromisingly under a twin burden of ethical missteps and contempt for public process.
But underneath the decay, there are signs of new life. DC/Harris Gallery started up in Bero's old space, and Eric Firestone opened another at the east end of Congress. A couple of daring public art projects--Simon Donovan's pedestrian snake bridge and Steve Farley's photographic installations--got the go-ahead, and by next summer will add some distinctive and eccentric art to the Broadway underpass at downtown's east end. A team of determined thirtysomething artists is conspiring to persuade downtown's worst landlord, the federal government, to give them the dead block of buildings on Congress between Stone and Scott avenues for a new Museum of Contemporary Art. In the meantime, they've opened up a Temporary Contemporary in an old warehouse on Toole Avenue. Dubbing it Haz Mat Gallery, they opened this month with a first show of wild contemporary works.
The Warehouse District just north of downtown's railroad tracks is positively thriving. And cool, definitely. Davis Dominguez Gallery, transplanted from the foothills, is in situ in its new digs in an old plumbing storehouse on Sixth Street. At the far south end of the same building, on Seventh Street (these warehouses are nothing if not big), Orts Theatre of Dance is happily occupying its renovated Movement Warehouse studios. Photographer José Galvez revamped his gallery as the Mexican American Cultural Art Center, abandoned Fourth Avenue and followed Davis Dominguez to Sixth. Also newly installed on the street are artist Susan Gamble and her Santa Theresa Tileworks, and landscape architects Wheat Scharf. At Fifth Avenue, the International Arts Center has come a long way in its renovation of the old YMCA building; a dozen artists are already in residence.
As for the art itself, there's lots of good to report. Painter Bailey Doogan's one-woman show of gigantic charcoal drawings at the University of Arizona Museum of Art this fall may be all by itself in this year's jaw-dropper category. Her stark, aggressive drawings--of naked, aging women, of an ethereal child dead of abuse, of an Irish rebel killed in action--covered a roomful of walls. They were stunning, and beautiful. A close second was Robert Colescott, the Tucson artist who brought his paintings from the Venice Biennale home to the UAMA. Diving across continents and centuries, Colescott's big bright paintings about race, culture and gender were difficult and gorgeous all at once. Come to think of it, the UAMA, which also did the ear-splitting Dennis Oppenheim installation about the U.S. Mexican border, this year gets the prize for least-staid museum.
Rival Tucson Museum of Art's exhibitions were hampered by the $2.7 million construction project that shut the museum's doors all winter. After adding some 5,000 feet of new gallery space, the TMA re-opened with a huge survey of Spanish arts and crafts in the New World. Full of handmade sailing ships and carved Virgins, El Alma del Pueblo was a wholly laudable enterprise somewhat marred by the blatant commercialism of its sponsor, a car maker who shall here remain nameless. And in a downtown that is too empty at night, the restaurant space formerly known as Janos is now forlornly contributing to the evening darkness. The museum is converting the space to a gallery. But it's good to see the return of the museum's adventurous New Directions series featuring Tucson artists, with photographer Amy Zuckerman first up, then Daniel Martin Diaz.
More visual art highlights: Cynthia Miller's velvety blue "Monsoon Chair," a work on paper at Pima Community College; Kate Breakey's dead painted birds, magnified to startling effect in photographs at Etherton Gallery; Ansel Adams' serene miniatures of nature at the Center for Creative Photography, juxtaposed against pictures of the worst humanity has to offer. Adams' lovely bits of snowflakes and tree barks and blossoms were paired with stark-eyed portraits of Cambodians photographed just before they went off to slaughter in the killing fields. One cannot easily forget the look in the eyes of a mother soon to die, her infant in her arms.
The incomparable Mark Morris at Centennial Hall was the hands-down highlight in a busy dance calendar. A fan of Baroque music, Morris' most exhilarating work, "I Don't Want to Love," paired pared-down movement by dancers in white with gorgeous Italian madrigals, sung live by a quartet of impossibly rich voices. Ballet Arizona, which grows better by the month, undertook a wonderful re-staging of the Kurt Jooss classic "The Green Table," a dance-theatre piece spawned in 1930s Germany. Here dance was everything it can be: historical, metaphorical, lyrical. Orts Theatre of Dance admirably continued to give itself new tasks. This year's Thanksgiving concert was a delirious blend of modern dance, Portuguese chants and the movements of capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form that has shadowy roots in the world the slaves made. Local independent choreographer Ellen Bromberg moved into a new video dimension with "Falling to Earth," an emotional, multi-media work about death. The upstart NEW ARTiculations dance troupe, a young group eager to showcase its own choreography, proves reassuringly that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Arizona Opera moved into the next generation with its new director, David Speers, and his first two productions hinted at greater theatrical fluidity. Strauss's Die Fledermaus, in November, was a pure joy. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music continue to bring plaudits to Tucson with their Winter Chamber Music Festival. I defer to my more knowledgeable musical colleagues in reporting the Tucson Symphony Orchestra continues to advance under its newish director, George Hanson. The local poetry scene thrives under the careful tending of CHAX Press and Kore Press, the UA Poetry Center, POG and the UA Extended University. A POG event at South Tucson's Las Artes, a tile-art program for teens, attracted a big audience far from the usual poetry precincts.
The low point of my final months as theatre reviewer occurred when I arrived for a play to find the actors standing forlornly outside the theatre in their costumes. Not a single audience member had showed up except for me. We agreed together that the show must go on, and during the ensuing performance my good nature compelled me to laugh loudly at every joke. It was the loneliest night yet on an unusually lonely beat, the local theatre scene. I have since ceded it to the more patient Dave Irwin, yet I saw some fine work before I did.
Tucson Art Theatre, which surfaces only occasionally, turned out an exquisite and demanding Cerceau, a modern Russian update on Chekhovian themes. Invisible Theatre turned serious with Kindertransport, an imaginatively staged work about the lasting damage done to child survivors of the Holocaust. The traveling Rent at Centennial Hall was unabashedly good; and so was Tim Miller's one-man performance piece about love and life and the everlasting search for a good New York apartment.
Finally, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night was the finest play that Arizona Theatre Company has undertaken in years. There was nothing about the production that wasn't perfect: not script, not cast, not set, not direction. It was a wholly absorbing, wholly pleasurable, serious and funny and wonderful. As a matter of fact, it just might have met the Handel standard. Here's to more of the same.
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