Art Gone Wild

Repurposed thrift-shop knits and giant balloons boost the excitement at downtown's contemporary galleries

Conrad Wilde Gallery's new space may be small, but it's hard to miss, at least right now: A giant fungus in orange knit has alighted on the front window.

Even the artist, Renee Prisble, calls the work a "large-scale fungal invasion."

What it really is, is a new form altogether: a sweater sculpture. "Orange Jelly" is composed entirely of old thrift-shop knits, twisted and stuffed and arranged into orange orbs on a white board. The blobs cavort across the backboard like a bunch of out-of-control cancer cells. Unlike cancer cells, though, they're pleasing to look at.

Prisble diligently searched out knits in varying stitch sizes, scrunching up yarns from fat to fine, and she's got a lovely spectrum of oranges, going all the way from blazing red to a merely glowing tan.

Wilde is the premier location in town for contemporary experimental work. Contemporary art is dedicated to the proposition that anything and everything can be art, and generally delights in the shock of the new, to borrow critic Robert Hughes' phrase. In a summer when the city's main art museum, the Tucson Museum of Art, is filled with traditional art of the West, I decided to take a quick tour through downtown's cutting-edge spaces.

The aptly named Wilde specializes, you guessed it, in art gone wild. Inside, you'll find PVC pipe, carved-up books and stained ceramics, along with Prisble's orange yarn. The gallery encourages groundbreaking materials and processes, but director Miles Conrad always insists on superb craftsmanship. "Orange Jelly" easily meets his high standards, as do the other works in the current show, Addition/Subtraction.

Gallery favorite Jessica Drenk is back with elegantly carved PVC pipes. Drenk arranges the workaday white plastic in rows, and then cuts such lovely patterns into them that they look more plantlike than commercial. That's the point. As she explains in her artist's statement, Drenk deliberately blurs the line between natural objects and manufactured goods—between plants and plumbing supplies.

Her "Erosions 43" is a lovely sculptural abstraction, alive with flickering lights and shadows. The surface of the curving pipe is bright white, but the carved openings allow a view into the darks in the interior. In her "Procession Four," a cut-wood work, she's started with a wholly natural material—wood—and sliced and diced it into tiny regimented pieces. Then, going back in the other direction, she's arranged these little wooden cogs into patterns that suggest nature once again.

Wilde has been in business about seven years, weathering the economic downturn by downsizing both its space and its hours. Displaying admirable optimism, James Schaub and Albert Chamillard opened ATLAS Fine Art Services last fall, with a focus, like Wilde's, on abstraction and innovation. Its last exhibition, just for instance, displayed works on paper that Katherine Monaghan created out of hardware washers, water, rust and paper.

The art in the new show, Ken Hill: Progressions, at first glance seems more conventional. A Philadelphia artist recently transplanted to Tucson, Hill makes paintings and colored-pencil works on paper, some of them just 5 inches square. Their rocketing colors, shooting diagonally across the surface, make them just right for the Fourth of July season.

Despite their good cheer, these works are serious, and more complex than you might think. Hill uses multiple vanishing points, confounding a viewer's attempt to nail down the pieces' geometry.

"Asterisk 1" and "Asterisk 2" seem to have their origins in a point right in the middle of the picture plane. But the more you look at their bursting colors—green, red, yellow, hot pink—and at their darting lines, the more confused you get. With vanishing points all over the place, you don't know where one troop of lines starts and another one stops. It's op art meets conceptual art.

MOCA Tucson could probably hold a dozen ATLASES and Wildes in its cavernous spaces. The museum occupies the former downtown firehouse, and the old fire-truck garage makes a handsome Great Hall for the monumental works MOCA routinely displays.

The current show, Vinjon Global Corp.: Quietly Taking Over the World, was put together by a pair of visiting artists, Floridian Jordan Vinyard and Minnesotan Hunter Jonakin, who gave their combined last names to their imaginary corporation. Unlike contemporary artists who strip their work of narrative, the Vinyard-Hunter team put their unusual materials—cardboard boxes, shiny Mylar, harnesses—to the service of satire.

That's partly because they're performance artists, and the pieces they worked on at the museum during the month of June became props for their live show two weeks ago. Now displayed in a static exhibition, these works have no doubt lost some of their dramatic power. Still, some still carry a satiric edge, critiquing corporate power in a time of economic woe and sympathizing with artists trying to do authentic work in a plastic world.

"Life Buoy for the Struggling Artist" is a giant balloon lying on its side. Kept inflated by an electric fan blowing air into its innards, it wobbles around, trying to go aloft. Two harnesses sized for adults are tethered to it by cords. If the struggling artists in question were only strapped in, and if the balloon could be set free, they could all fly to liberation.

"Utility Harness for the Tortured Artist" is less buoyant. This set of straps has no balloon for rescue, and it's fitted with wires evidently designed to inflict pain, in case the artists using it haven't already hurt themselves enough.

"Suits of Scintillation: Vinjon Ghillie Suits" is a set of head-to-toe costumes made of strips of shiny Mylar fluttering in the AC. These all-over suits would offer a hiding place to artists weary of the madding crowd—or to any citizen seeking to escape the machinations of corporations.

A series of deft drawings on the wall show that these installation artists also know their way around a pencil. Called "Vinjon Stocks," the drawings take their aesthetic from the flowery paper stock certificates that prevailed before online trading. In one fake certificate, a huge and menacing corporate blimp makes a beeline for the fragile towers of the city. And it doesn't look like the blimp is going to lose the battle.

An unrelated painting by the late Robert Colescott, the eminent Tucson artist, hangs in a back gallery of the museum. It's not part of the show, but it illustrates another side of contemporary art, one that draws on centuries of painterly tradition while taking a sharp look at current mores.

The roughly, beautifully, colorfully painted "Kitchen Assassination," circa 1971, pictures the 1968 death of Robert F. Kennedy. Colescott was a master of historical but thoroughly modern paintings that brilliantly dissected themes of race.

In this one, Rosey Grier, a black man painted like the Sambo of early racist literature, overcomes the nation's negative stereotypes. He couldn't stop Kennedy's murder, but he is a hero nonetheless, a man who doesn't hesitate to leap forward to grab the killer's gun.

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