Art Into the City

MOCA shows off its new, permanent home with a wide-ranging show of ultra-contemporary works

Two firefighters are posing inside of a giant wooden frame.

Wearing helmets, boots and thick fireproof suits emblazoned with neon green tape, they're fully at their leisure in a color photo at MOCA. One leans casually on the other, and they gaze pleasantly at the camera from inside their shadow box.

With the firefighters reduced to the size of action toys, the piece looks like an optical illusion or a clever bit of Photoshop work. It's not, though. The artist, Coke Wisdom O'Neal, actually builds bigger than life-size frames and places his subjects inside of them, giving them a big stage to strut their stuff.

Named for the two men, "Joel Llanos and Orlando Arevelo"—is a fitting piece for the inaugural show at MOCA's new permanent digs. The museum building used to be the downtown firehouse, and in the picture, the firefighters seamlessly merge with fine art.

The former firehouse, at Church Avenue and McCormick Street, just across the street from the Tucson Convention Center, turns out to be a perfect venue for MOCA's ultra-contemporary offerings. The firefighters who once occupied it moved up the street, to a new station west on Cushing Street. (They're welcome back anytime: Public-safety officers always get in free.)

MOCA had been camping out in a series of temporary quarters around downtown—a couple of warehouses on Toole Avenue, a borrowed space on Stone Avenue—over the past decade while looking for a permanent home. When it turned out that demolition of the old firehouse would be prohibitively expensive, MOCA eagerly took the empty concrete and glass building off the city's hands.

The garage for the department's fleet of fire engines has become the Great Hall, the new museum's main gallery. The row of industrial-sized windows along the north wall—the former garage doors—frame an extraordinary view of downtown Tucson: St. Augustine Cathedral, skyscrapers, buildings of old red brick, and the trees and small hills at the edge of TCC's parking lot fill the urban vista. Police headquarters adjoin the museum, and cop vehicles can be seen through the smaller windows on the south wall.

Art in museums is usually hidden away in windowless rooms, notes MOCA executive director Anne-Marie Russell. Not here. This space brings "brings the art out into the city," she says. "The art is a part of life."

And the Great Hall is an enormous space that easily accommodates enormous works of art. In the opening show, Made in Tucson, it's filled with a half-dozen monumental works.

Julia Latané, a co-founder of MOCA back in the late 1990s, has plenty of room to plant giant vinyl grass in her sculptural installation "Blade." Her lawn is as outsized as O'Neal's firefighters are tiny. Her 28 green and pink shoots, made of vinyl that's been stuffed and stitched, are at least 6 feet tall, and they have plenty of room to reach for the sky. (Visitors have plenty of room to play ant, walking underneath the stalks.)

Up on high, Jessica James Lansdon's celebratory "Sale" greets visitors with hundreds of brightly colored triangular banners hanging from the high ceiling. Dave Lewis' harsh "Container" stacks two metal interrogation rooms, complete with chairs, one atop the other.

The brutalist concrete floors and walls, the metal ceiling and exposed pipes are a good match for the frankly utilitarian materials used by so many contemporary artists, things like Lewis' rusty metal, and wood, Mylar, Styrofoam and found trash.

In a political attack last fall, some Republican operatives tried to portray the Museum of Contemporary Art as a hotbed of porn. They railed against a painting—exhibited, briefly, years ago at MOCA's old warehouse on Toole—that depicted cartoon-colored phalluses flying through the air. (See "Bunch of Dicks," Currents, Oct. 22, 2009.) For the record, I counted not a single penis in the opening show, which features work by 45 different artists who have some connection to the Old Pueblo.

In fact, those firefighters notwithstanding, there is very little figurative art in this show. What's challenging about contemporary art is not usually its depiction of the human body or parts thereof, but its assertion that anything and everything can be made into art—so much so that it doesn't always register as art.

In this show, for example, S.J. Gibson's sculpture "Pallet" looks exactly like a pallet you might find in any downtown alley. It's a collection of rough wooden planks and two-by-fours held together by screws.

The neon lamp dangling from the ceiling works just like a lamp, but it's a meta-lamp: an artwork that just happens to emit light through its twisty glowing tubes. The painter Olivier Mosset, a Swiss transplanted to Tucson, created "Ramp," a painted wooden sculpture that is precisely that: two ramps curving up to a meeting point.

To be sure, there are painters still grappling with the big old-fashioned ideas of beauty and meaning and transcendence, even if their painting styles are new-fashioned. Peter Young, a Bisbee painter who won fame in the late '60s for his brightly colored patterned paintings, has a fire-engine-size example so big it goes up to the rafters.

"No. 8—1990" is a long vertical sweep of white canvas with hundreds of colored circles painted in diagonal grids. (They look a little like a Chinese-checkers board.) Bright primary and secondary colors—red, blue, yellow; orange, purple, green—dance across the surface. Your eye shoots up and down the rows until the circles start popping out, in a dazzling optical illusion.

Harmony Hammond's painting "Dark Grid and Noche" is the opposite of Young's. Where his work is all about color, hers is black; where his is flat paint, hers is thick and textured. Visible brushstrokes are etched into the black, and the surface is alive with crevices, bumps and even tiny hillocks of paint. A former UA art professor, Hammond has created a piece of scorched earth in art.

Drawing is a skill not always prized in contemporary-art circles, but one of the various side galleries—former offices, no doubt—is admirably dedicated to charcoal drawings on paper. Another retired UA prof, Bailey Doogan, probably draws as well as any other living artist, and her two pieces here are treasures. "Five-Fingered Smile" and "One-Fingered Smile" are portraits of the artist in grief; in each, she pulls her mouth into a grimace, trying to yank herself out of despair by literally forcing a smile.

On an adjoining wall, Adam Helms also has a fine charcoal on paper, "Untitled Landscape," a complicated fantasy landscape of Alpine peaks and valleys in gray and black. A crude nailed-together platform (it could have been hammered together by Gibson, maker of "Pallet") presides at the top of the central summit, suggesting, perhaps, the distances humans will travel to degrade the land.

Back in the Great Hall, Aili Schmeltz has created a sculptural mineral that could have been mined from Helms' landscape. Her "Santa Anna Fire Agate" is a large-scale piece that mimics the intricate lines found at the heart of this beautiful kind of quartz. But Schmeltz's work cleverly, and probably inadvertently, brings together two motifs of the firehouse-turned-museum. Its complex panels are made of disposable cardboard and Styrofoam, two throw-away contemporary materials, and its delicate patterns are colored gray, ocher and a screaming fire-engine orange.

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