Hot Art

Raices Taller commemorates the heat in a Latino way with 'Calor'

Before its swamp cooler kicks in each afternoon, Raices Taller is the hottest place in Tucson.

Small and airtight, the gallery has big, plate glass windows that greedily suck up heat from the asphalt jungle outside and push the temps to oven levels inside. So it makes sense that the co-op, Tucson's only venue devoted to Latino art, should devote its summer show to Calor, the art of heat.

E. Michael Contreras precisely captures the prevailing summer mood in his "Hot and Cranky Chickens." Painted in thick oil impasto, his two chickens snappishly peck at each other, their coxcombs afire in a hellish red. These creatures are so irritable, so weighed down by thick plumage, they can't contain their foul moods within their own bodies. They've generated a set of shadow shelves, ghostly chickens that bicker just beyond them.

If Contreras has used feisty fowl to evoke this drought-stricken summer of our discontent, the 11 other artists delve into heat in a dozen different ways. For some, calor conjures up sexual heat, or flames flickering out of a casa afire. To others, it's the warm glow of a Yaqui sunrise, the rays radiating from an Aztec god of fire, or the hot times of summer in the city.

Mary Lou Williams, an art teacher at Pima College, spikes a sexual fever in a suite of four skillful lino-cuts. In her "Tango," a dancing duo can barely contain their ardor. The woman throws her head back in ecstasy, her red shawl flung provocatively over her shoulder; the man grips her with fierce restraint. Another couple is sinking to the floor, in the smoldering "Stardust Ballroom," apparently with thoughts of consummating their passion right this minute. The singer of "El Cantador" serenades a woman under the hot artificial lights of night.

These bold works, printed in black oil-based ink and hand-painted in water colors, directly evoke an earlier Mexican printmaking tradition, particularly the vivid graphic works of José Guadalupe Posada. Active in late 19th-century Mexico, newspaper illustrator Posada deployed a strong line and deep blacks in works that skewered political foibles and celebrated religious and folk heroes. (A show of Posada's prints continues at the Tucson Museum of Art through Oct. 3.) Likewise, Williams' exaggerated images, carved into linoleum with a sharp tool, use a decisive--and sensuous--black line to sketch out the combustible contortions of Latin dancing.

Williams' self-conscious link with earlier Mexican art traditions is typical--but not universal--in this gallery, Joe Rebholz's neon-colored digital abstract paintings being the notable exception. The other artists draw on heroic murals, on the delirious graffiti of the Mexican street, and on the religious imagery of the retablo.

Ceci Garcia's "Yaqui Sunrise," dedicated to railroad workers, is a monoprint picturing the classic flaming heart of holy retablos; it's colored in the red, pinks and oranges of a rosy dawn. Garcia typically adds bits of earth to her acrylic paints to honor the place that inspired a particular artwork. Here, she's included soil from the Arizona BHP Copper Mine, converting her art into something approaching a religious relic.

Martin Quintanilla's "La Casa Llamas," an acrylic on canvas, evokes a more secular tradition of popular paintings about everyday life. Rendered in a naïve style--almost as though a kindergartner had sketched it out--"La Casa" is a house ablaze, with stylized orange flames leaping out of every window. Cats and dogs scurry, while a woman outside throws up her hands to her head. But there's not much alarm being generated here: The perspective is charmingly askew, and each and every flame and cloud casts a dark shadow, making the whole thing seem more stage set than true disaster.

Drawing on the mural tradition of Mexico--and its later incarnation as a Chicano art form in the United States--David Tineo has painted any number of murals around town, including the big collaborative one on the north wall of TMA. Here he exhibits the portable mural "Aztec Fire and Ice." Made up of four wood panels that stretch 12 feet across and 7 feet high, the piece feels a bit like it was done by rote, relying as it does on the familiar canon of elements in Chicano art. Two large heads, half-Aztec and half-Picasso, face each other across a typical flaming heart, while at the edges a campesino and a lizard-snake preside. And while it's energetic, it's a bit sloppier than Tineo's usual work, perhaps because it was painted in a single night at a downtown Art Market event, according to the gallery.

Gonzalo Espinosa, also well-known for his public art work--particularly with South Tucson teens--collaborates here with Quintanilla on the engaging mixed-media painting, "Super Barrio." This is the summer-in-the-city painting, with a classic Mexican street scene painted at bottom. Political graffiti covers its colonial church, colorful shops and sad gray skyscrapers, the scrawled signs denouncing politicians Salinas and Fox and lamenting Mexico's assorted woes in education and labor. But above these lamentations rises the superhero Super Barrio, the logo of the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas emblazoned on his chest, his face painted like a Mayan god's.

Super Barrio may be a hero--or a patron saint--to those suffering in the city, but he apparently helps those along the border, too. Dangling from a rope around his waist are real-life found objects that look suspiciously like the stuff undocumented migrants lose as they make their perilous scramble through the Arizona desert. A can opener, a toothbrush, a tin cup and a Virgin of Guadalupe holy card hang by a thread, standing in for their vanished owners, and becoming, like Garcia's soil, sacred relics of desperation.