Ship To Shore

From Columbus' Santa Maria To Tucson's Bladed Desert, Light Is The Subject Of Serious Reflection For Two Phoenix Artists.

TAKE A COUPLE of wire boxes, add a piercing white light, rig up a machine to move the bulb up and down, and you've got yourself a spectacular show of light and shadow. Al Price, a Phoenix artist, did exactly that for his beautiful installation "Swimming in Front of La Santa Maria," now at the UA Joseph Gross Gallery in a two-person show called Form/Light/Motion. But the piece is more complicated than it sounds. Price's wire boxes cast exquisite moving shadows, great tangles of crisscrossed lines that look now like spider webs, now like ship's rigging, now a cage. None of these configurations is accidental, either: Price directs his shadow's movements the way a conductor summons up a crescendo or pianissimo. With the suppleness of a symphony, they rise and fall on the austere gallery walls; they push out across the concrete floor and creep back, and ebb and flow over the ceiling.

"Swimming" has only a few components. Hooked onto the gallery wall, about 6 feet up, is a flattish mesh box with strands of wire arranged diagonally into diamonds. Standing on the floor below, on four wire legs, is a big square box made of wire squares. A halogen light dangles down from the top box, and a motor moves the wire gradually up and down.

The shadows are at their most eerie -- and most cobwebby -- when the light ascends into the diamond wires of the top box, and pulses up and down. Giant gray diamonds are cast out dozens of feet into the gallery. When the light descends to the lower box, the giant shadows suddenly contract, and then grow again, but now they've changed shape. They become huge, stretched-out squares undulating across the walls. You can join in the show anytime you care to. By standing right next to the light you can see your own body writ large in gray silhouette among the crosshatching.

Sitting on the spectator's bench at front and center, you feel alternately embraced and trapped by the tangle of lines. They can be as exhilarating as a soaring cathedral, as terrifying as a trap set by a faceless machine, as mesmerizing as cascading ocean waves. And in case we missed the sea references, Price has included a small wire sculpture of Columbus' flag ship, the Santa Maria. The sailing ship sits atop the big square box, but it doesn't go anywhere at all. Nevertheless, the ship stands in for adventure. Once upon a time the open sea was the wilderness. Now technology -- and technological art like this -- is at the edge of the frontier.

Price made "Swimming" specifically for this gallery, and the plain gray and white walls and floor, and open functional ceiling, with vents and pipes showing, are well suited to it. An artist who has previously created site-specific work in Phoenix, Soho and Scottsdale, Price says that "Swimming" is intended "to give the spirit flight." It also refers to the forbidding Western landscape.

"There is a feeling of tension giving way to release," he writes in an artist's statement, " a traveler, who after passing through dark and narrow canyon walls, climbs onto the open plateau of a mesa."

The eroding West is more explicitly evoked in the work of another Phoenix artist, Denis Gillingwater, whose installation "Target Targeted" makes up the other half of this show. Like Price, Gillingwater uses tech-y materials. TV cameras pick up live movement in the gallery, so that visitors become part of his work, projected onto video monitors set at intervals along the gallery ramp and in the room. The cameras are also trained on a few of the dozen photographs that are the heart of the piece. They picture Tucson's damaged desert, displayed sculpturally in metal, billboard-style frames.

The photos have been shot in a supple toned black-and-white that's reminiscent of the old explorer photographs of the 19th century. Gillingwater, a professor at Arizona State University, doesn't go after Western majesties though; instead he records the late 20th-century violations he found on several trips to Tucson. A desert is scraped bare, its dusty surface scarred by bulldozer tracks. A big white industrial plant rises out of another piece of compromised earth. A tire lies abandoned in the dirt; a canal slices incongruously through dry land; a cheap frame house goes up in still another suburban stucco city.

Gillingwater is entranced by the incongruities of the billboards planted along the highways of this business-friendly state, their stark ugliness fitting right in with what we've wrought on the land. A sign for Casino of the Sun erupts out of an RV park. Another for loony Biosphere, that self-proclaimed last, best hope for Earth's ecology, sticks out of a pile of dirt. Best of all is a shot of a billboard framed in the trademark Chevrolet shape, a sort of elongated cross. The ad slug word, "Satisfaction," is flung ironically across a patch of pristine Sonoran saguaros. If only the desert were as desired and protected a commodity as the automobile!

The live, closed-circuit cameras superimpose a viewer's image on the photographers, so you can catch your back or your arm or your head flickering on the monitors like gargantuan invaders in the landscape. We're all to blame here, the artist seems to say. The machines make the piece more fun, and add another layer of meaning, but they're not intrinsic to it, the way Price's moving light is to "Swimming." All by themselves, Gillingwater's fine photographs could do the job.

Form/Light/Motion, a show of site-specific installations by Denis Gillingwater and Al Price, continues through Monday, September 27, at the Joseph Gross Gallery in the UA Fine Arts Complex, southeast corner of Speedway and Park Avenue. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 626-4215.