Big Ideas in Small Packages

The Sizeys reward artists for meaningful—and merry—miniature works at Davis Dominguez

The sweeping beauty of the Navajo Nation—the rock outcroppings, the sage-green brush, the pinkish-red earth—comes alive in a color photo by Claire Harlan. But Harlan also captures an asphalt road that scars this land, and billowing white smoke that pollutes its sky. In the distance, is the "Navajo Generating Station" that gives this photo of a flawed landscape its title.

Jenny Day is another young artist who investigates human depredations upon the land. Her medium is paint, not digital prints, and she's closer to abstract than realist, but her approach is remarkably similar to Harlan's. Day's "Nearly Somewhere" has red hills slouching toward a horizon and a broad blue sky. Yet a highway cuts through the rich red earth, vertical poles mar the view and a broad black band eviscerates the horizon.

Both works are in "Small Things Considered: 23rd Small Works Invitational," a show of some 80 artists at Davis Dominguez. Neither Harlan's nor Day's piece is bigger than 12 inches-square, which just goes to prove that big thoughts can go into small packages.

This annual show restricts artists to small-size paintings and sculptures, and the pleasure of it is seeing how artists compress their ideas—and their characteristic styles—into miniature works. Each year I give out Sizey Awards to the best of the smallest. On Day and Harlan, both productive artists who've had one-woman shows in Tucson in recent years, I bestow the prize for Aesthetic Environmentalist.

In a related category, Tucson photographer Cy Lehrer, whose environmental preoccupations are more urban, gets the City Claptrap prize for "Octo-See Red in Parking Lots," his sharply etched and lighted photo of a street corner. Lehrer helps us see how ugly we've made our cities, by flattening nature and paving it over.

As always, the irrepressible Alfred Quiroz bends his art toward justice. Cutting a big villain down to laudably small size, he's painted a red-faced portrait of Maricopa County's immigrant-chasing Sheriff Joe Arpaio in "Ah Luv Mexkin Food." Give Quiroz the Sizey for Best Political Caricature.

Wackiest Sculpture goes to Michael Fadel for "Path of a Spent Arrow." Fadel assembled a box of sand, a broken arrow and a rope, and set the whole thing a-moving with a music box motor. When a lever is turned, the motor cranks up and raises the fallen arrow.

Beata Wehr gets Cheeriest Abstraction for her lively "Three Circles," a tiny gouache and ink on paper whose three maroon spheres roll over an orange background. Not more than 8 inches long and 4 inches high, "Circles" hints at the desert: a "sky" above is blue, and cactus-like shapes in green rise up across the bottom.

The Clash of the Creative Curators award goes to three successive curators of Tohono Chul Park gallery, each of them working in a completely different style. Ben Johnson quit the job to pursue his painting and, judging by his entry, he made an excellent choice. A lyrical realist, Johnson has painted a wonderfully ethereal tree in the softly lit oil "As If from a Dream."

Johnson's predecessor Vicki Donkersley contributed "Coming Undone," a jubilant yellow-orange abstraction in acrylic, oil pastel and graphite on paper. With a dancing black drawing atop the textured background, it suggests an ancient Southwest rock painting. Current curator James Schaub, who formerly co-directed the now-defunct Atlas gallery downtown, ignited a "Jungle Fire" in a contemporary painting that combines acrylic on canvas with jute. A dense row of painted and polka-dotted jute cords are jammed onto the canvas as thickly as the trees in a rain forest.

Honorable mention goes to Dr. Julie Sasse, chief curator at Tucson Museum of Art, who also commendably makes her own art, in this case, a delicate mixed-media wall box, in the Joseph Cornell tradition.

Best Woven Paper goes to Claire Campbell Park for "Meditation: blue 2," a teensy, intricate, blue-and-white weaving, a deft miniature of the full-length shimmering cloth weavings she normally does. Gail Marcus Orlen gets Best Summer Vacation for her "Clouds," an oil on canvas of a slim, glimmering jet slicing through a radiant orange sky.

Debra Salopek, a perennial winner of the Big Sky award, does not disappoint with the dark, damp prairie sky in her oil "Penas #6." Jim Waid gets Best Parrot for his painting "Pajarito" and the gallery goer who is first to find the bird in the painting's dense, fertile flowerscape wins Where's Waldo.

The winner of my annual award for Best Painted Escape to a Place I Want to Go is Philip Melton for "White House Road," a quick, loose oil sketch of a classic western landscape.

Underneath a pale blue sky that's bigger than big, Melton has painted a low line of distant mountains in nearly invisible blue-gray. Closer-in hills are the rich brown of the earth and some barely-there cacti are green. And the road to all this glory, unadulterated by the asphalt in Harlan's landscape or the poles in Day's pastoral, is a coral-pink dirt path that disappears into the horizon.