Artistic Machinations

Machine Worship Takes A Tongue-In-Cheek Turn At HazMat Gallery.

BRIAN HORTON WORKS with manly materials: heavy-duty concrete, steel, aluminum and wood. And out of these he makes manly sculptures that look almost -- but not quite -- like the shiny tools Dad keeps in the garage. Take "Tool C," a concoction carefully crafted out of wood and aluminum, displayed on a massive concrete pedestal in HazMat Gallery's sculpture show. "Tool C" is a sleek machine, silver and teal, endowed with a virile black handle and a giant, dangling silver cord and plug. But this buff gadget is a bit off-kilter, hampered by an impotent circular saw. Nearby is "The Testing Ground," another pseudo-machine whose base looks like a real-life water heater, a shape of suspiciously phallic allure. A silver-screened geodesic dome juts out from one side of the cylindrical white shaft, and a contraption that's a cross between an airplane with pontoons and a clothes iron sticks out from the other.

These works are partly tongue-in-cheek send-ups of the guy worship of machines, of the masculine province of the workshop, of the tool catalog of erotic intent. Pressing the joke, Horton has hung on a nearby wall three industrial-looking photos picturing a trio of his inventions, solemn images pleading for machinist homage. At the same time, his sculptures demand semi-serious recognition for the shiny appeal of a well-turned tool. Sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a machine is just a machine; but why, after all, can't a fine circular saw count as art? In Horton's world, with a little help, it can. He creates artistic souls for his new machines, good-naturedly bridging the gap between the workaday world and art.

And in delicate contrast to his stolid metallics, Horton, a new master's grad from the UA, has tried out the most fragile of materials. "The Competition" is made of gossamer white paper, an ephemeral medium wholly at odds with the permanence of metal and wood. And unlike the firmly rooted machine sculptures, the dainty paper structures were destined to tumble. The work consists of two tall towers made of pieces of paper folded accordion-style and stacked about two dozen deep. For a while after the show opened, they were a couple of precarious Towers of Paper, swaying in the breeze. Finally they toppled. After the fall, they assumed an artistic pose upon the floor, one reaching out to touch the other. Tower One sustained more damage, with its top coming apart and scattering all over. Tower Two stayed mostly intact.

These transient paper works lightly propose an art that's meant to fade away like everything else in life. Still, with their continuing narrative -- will they deteriorate even more by the end of the show? -- they're as entertaining as Horton's humorous machines. Contemporary art, weird as it is, can be fun.

Vol. V, Issue 4 is the fourth show for the HazMat Gallery, which is operating as a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Curated by museum director Julia Latané, the show highlights three-dimensional contemporary works in materials as diverse as grass, twigs, cloth and ceramic, as well as Horton's aforementioned paper and steel.

Dave Lewis, a Toole Shed artist, is another steelworker. In "Six Years: Self-Portrait as Infrastructure," he's erected a sextet of steel constructions that look like oil derricks. But he's softened their hard edges with organic material. The top of each derrick has a small planter hosting real grass in varying stages of death and dying. (The grass started out the show green and growing.) Like Horton's paper, Lewis' grass introduces chance into his work, as a counterpoint to his carefully built structures.

An artist working in ceramic and cloth, Heather Bussey says that her work focuses on the "under-noticed" and the obscure. Her piece "Sheathe 6-10" proves that sometimes the under-noticed ought to stay that way. Made out of what look like socks hardened up with ceramic, her pedestrian work mimics pedestrian white pipes coming out of a wall.

The lone painter in the show, Greta Banks, also focuses on the mundane, but to more salutary effect. Her six small works about pop culture are painted in highly glossed oils, but conforming to the sculpture theme, they're on convex resin-form surfaces that look for all the world like television screens. Banks works the genre of pop detritus, of Smurfs and kewpie dolls and the other bizarre arcana that flow out of our TV sets. Using video-bright candy colors, Banks subversively reconstructs tedious TV-land, putting an ax in the blue hand of "Smurfette," sexualizing a lovable Frosty the Snowman with an erect carrot.

Catherine Nash, a longtime Tucson artist, has until now been covering the sculptural-paper beat in town almost all by herself. Highly trained in Asian techniques of paper-making, Nash painstakingly fashions her material out of such rarefied sources as mulberry bark. She's used this fine paper here for paper boat and wooden twig constructions, like those she exhibited last winter in the UA Student Union gallery.

In "Nesting Boat," five paper canoes in successively larger sizes are suspended in the air above a pile of twigs and straw. The paper boats are delicately colored, their tones ranging from palest white to beige to brown. "Rooted Boat" nestles in lovely bare wood branches, while "Flood Boat" is lashed into some red-brown manzanita.

Nash devotes much more loving attention to her paper than Horton does; his appears to be commercially produced typing paper, while hers is lovingly hand-crafted. And in fact, though Nash's unusual materials fit right in with the HazMat roster, her work is worlds away from the other pieces in the show. The other artists are hip and ironic, fond of doing riffs on the mass-produced culture and objects of the late 20th century. But Nash's constructions have nary an ironic twig. Coming out of the earth art movement that's a generation old, they embody a reverence for nature and a serious interest in old-fashioned beauty.

Vol. V., Issue 4, a show of new painting and sculpture, continues through Saturday, Sept. 4, at HazMat Gallery, 191E. Toole Ave. Gallery hours are 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information call 624-5019.
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