The Second Coming of TAG

Tucson Artists Group re-emerges at Temple Gallery

Angry "Frank" is presiding at the Temple Gallery Downtown.

He's a polychromed plaster crank, a grimacing head on a pedestal who looks out his sky-blue eyes with unrelenting disapproval.

The sculpture is a bit of an outlier for artist Curt Brill, who's well-known for his larger-than-life, off-kilter nudes. Most of the pieces that come out of Brill's Tucson studio are attenuated women with extra-long arms and legs; made in bits and pieces, they look like quick 3D sketches of the classical nude.

Furious "Frank" is different from those beauties, but he does share some of their traits. His head is as manipulated as those women's bodies. It's tall and skinny, a flat thing that can stand up on its pedestal only because of a strong flat base. Plus, it has the wonderful tactile quality of all Brill's work, the sense that this is a thing made and shaped by human hands.

"Frank" also has a job to do. He's keeping an eye on Tag Re-Emergence 2, the second part of a two-exhibition comeback of the Tucson Artists Group. Fresh from a hiatus of several years, the longtime local art group has put together a lively mix of sculptures, photographs, paintings, drawings on paper, fabric work and jewelry.

Like Brill, some of the artists are well-known. Kathleen Velo right now has an absorbing solo show at the Tucson Museum of Art of underwater photograms documenting the decline of the Colorado River [see Tucson Weekly Jan. 21]. You can see a lovely, liquid outtake from the series here: the turquoise-on-turquoise "Willow Beach: Colorado River #65."

Photographer Willam Lesch has lately been acclaimed for gorgeous black-and-white western landscapes and skyscapes. In this show, he changes course and returns to color. "Skeletal Remains #11," a large-scale photo mounted on steel plate, is an extreme close-up of a saguaro. Magnified dramatically, the rippling saguaro skin takes up the whole picture plane. Spines spin every which way, colored in painterly amber, ocher, blue and black.

Leslie Ann Epperson, an original TAG member, is locally famous for her movie on Tucson's annual All Saints Procession. Her two small mixed-media paintings feature shadowy skeletons and dreamy landscapes in midnight blue.

TAG, depending on who's doing the telling, started either 20 or 30 years ago. According to Rhod Lauffer, affectionately known by members as the ringleader, TAG's first incarnation was in the late 1980s. Lauffer started it with Don Reese, his former high-school art teacher. Reese, Lauffer and eventually other artists met regularly to critique work, share techniques and plot strategy to get their work shown. Following Reese's sudden death, TAG petered out for a time.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, Downtown Tucson was a dust town of empty storefronts where upstart "guerilla" galleries popped up regularly like toads after a monsoon rain. Many lasted only until the idealistic young gallerists maxed out their credit cards paying the $500-per-month rents. But while they endured, the spaces provided artists with multiple places to show.

Reorganizing around 1996, Lauffer and his TAG companions took advantage of the storefront scene. They soon scored regular gigs in Raw, a then-new gallery on Sixth Avenue just north of Broadway that championed inventive new art. The owner, George Huffman, was a painter new to town who soon joined TAG.

"George's gallery became our clubhouse," Lauffer says. "We met there regularly."

TAG began hanging monthly mini-shows in Raw's windows and eventually staged at least one exhibition per year in the space. From the Raw launching pad, TAG went on to exhibit work at Dinnerware, the Tucson Pima Arts Council gallery, the UA Student Union galleries and elsewhere.

The group scored some shows in Phoenix, and even had an exchange exhibition with artists in Northampton, England. The TAG artists put their work up in the UK, and their English counterparts shipped pieces to Tucson, where they exhibited at The Drawing Studio.

In recent years, TAG flagged, in part because of the departure of longtime members, including the energetic Cynthia Miller, a painter who moved away to take a teaching job in Texas. Lauffer's recent retirement from the Arizona State Museum, where he designed and hung shows, spurred him to dust TAG off and get in going again. The artists appreciate the camaraderie and support of the meetings, and the joint efforts to fine exhibition space, he says.

Interestingly, the current exhibition by 21 of the 22 current members features quite a few of the TAG originals. Founding member Charles Hedgcock, known for his gemlike photos of gleaming bugs, tries posies on for size here. His "Cereus Cactus Flower" is a luminous look at two plants, simplified and stripped down to tones of amber and gray.

Fellow founder Linda Rosenfield, by contrast, relishes crowded cityscapes in her mixed-media photos. She captures Downtown's happening Five Points neighborhood in "Ugly But Honest," an image shot in high diagonal of a street corner that's home to a sign-festooned used-car enterprise. Tom Bergin, also with TAG for 20 years, paints the wide-open spaces of northern Arizona, simplifying the plateaus and peaks, and splashing them with desert-fried color.

Lauffer himself checks in with "Singer," an unusual paper sculpture made of gessoed paperboard. It's pure white, with no pencil marks to trace the image of the female vocalist it pictures. She's rendered in a fractured 3D cubism, her jazzy shape carved out of curving and angled blocks of paperboard. It's at once meticulous and free.

TAG has no new shows nailed down at the moment, but Lauffer is thinking big.

"I'd love to take TAG back to Europe," he says. "Berlin is my dream."