Canvassing the Neighborhood

Dinnerware art gallery gets a new place setting.

On Fourth Avenue, just north of the underpass where the lively street sinks underground, a peculiar little ceramic wagon is perched on a pedestal in a former flower shop.

It's what Europeans call a "caravan," a rolling gypsy house on wheels. All in lavender goes this wagon riding, with shards of colored clay from red to blue to yellow to green plastered on top; bits and pieces are etched with nicely textured lines. Artist Monika Dalkin titled her painterly little creation "On the Move," and no wonder: It's in the first exhibition Dinnerware Contemporary Arts gallery is having in its new space.

For 24 years a staple of downtown's Congress Street, last month Dinnerware moved through the underpass to rental quarters on Fourth Avenue. Even the most casual passerby has only to look at the two streets to understand at least part of the reason for the move. Ostensibly the spine of Rio Nuevo's much-touted arts and entertainment district, Congress Street gets more desolate by the minute. The artists' group, confronted by empty sidewalks by day and squeezed by nightclubs and bars by night, sold the building to a brand-new theater group. (Who says hope doesn't spring eternal?) The artists decamped to Fourth, where pedestrians already are peering through the windows and stopping in to see the art.

Finances also entered into the decision. It was just too costly to stay in the building Dinnerware owned.

"There's a lot of sadness, but we've gotten a lot of good response," co-director Lucinda Young said one recent afternoon in the new space, in between tying bits of golden thread to her installation piece "Seaming Out (Silence, Sacrum, Salt Wash)," an airborne mixed-media work that pays homage to her seamstress grandmother and her home-sewing mother.

"The week before we opened, so many people showed up. The artists delivering work like it better. They're energized by the space. It's urban. The merchants are thrilled that we're here. They're really welcoming. I think it's going to be good."

To go along with the switch to the funkier building, whose paint-splattered concrete floors and concrete walls contrast with the old place's hardwood and sheetrock, the gallery's also gone in a for a snappy name change, with the emphasis on its initials: DCA. And it's also changing its structure. After years of boasts about being one of the longest-lived co-op galleries in the country, Dinnerware decided to metamorphose into a "member-based gallery."

Young and co-director Mauricio Toussaint, a painter, are paid staff, and members will pay a monthly fee instead of putting in the volunteer hours required under the old co-op agreement. The volunteer work, Toussaint said, was often onerous for artists already strapped by day jobs and studio time.

"Twenty years ago in Tucson, artists could get a part-time job and get by," Toussaint said. "Now, they have a full-time job and they want to paint. It wasn't working."

The membership has dwindled down to seven, but the gallery is aggressively recruiting new artists, with hopes of bringing the roster up to 75. With the work obligation eliminated, members no longer need to be local, and the recruitment campaign will be conducted statewide. The co-directors are also expanding eligibility beyond visual artists, and will welcome "off-grid artists--performance artists, video artists and spoken-word artists," Young said.

The opening show, Place, Perspective, Location, deliberately addresses the myriad changes at the gallery. The 23-artist show mixes together works by the current septet of members with pieces by alumni, some of whom first hatched the scheme to start Dinnerware over beers at The Shanty, just up the road at the corner of Ninth Street.

"We invited the alumni who have constantly shown their interest," Toussaint explained. "They've been in exhibitions; they've made to donations to the auction. We want to honor those artists and thank them."

Some of the big names from Dinnerware's old days who take on the theme of place are Jim Waid, who checks in with two pungently colored paintings of desert flora and fauna; Judith D'Agostino, who celebrates desert skies in a large neon-colored mixed-media painting; and Cynthia Miller, whose acrylic "Small Journey Ahead" seems to allude both to the gallery's physical move and her own shift away from her longtime subject of domestic objects. In this long, horizontal painting, vines curve across greens and blues drawn from the natural word.

Among the new members, Ann Tracy-Lopez stands out with a supple abstraction, mysteriously titled "I Have Speared My Dreams Under Your Feet (Dublin Series #1)." The artist has made delicious layerings of oils on her canvas, painting a couple of free-form yellow-ochre orbs floating over rich chocolates and charcoals. Toussaint's "La Vena Amoris" is a mixed-media encaustic on board. Fashioned on two long vertical panels, its outlined figures and Spanish words evoke the sensibility of Mexican milagros and retablos.

The show, which features several installation pieces, a defiantly ungainly metal sculpture and paintings investigating computer aesthetics and the like, bears out Young's assertion that "Dinnerware is always going to be more cutting-edge" than commercial galleries. But that won't stop it from trying to act more like a business in its new incarnation.

"We'll join the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association," Young said. "We are certainly going to try to push sales, and we're going to have a punchier Web site and more aggressive links to patrons. If we grow the membership and have a salaried staff, we can pursue grants."

The annual fund-raising auction, long a staple of the October calendar, won't return until next year. But Young promises it will capitalize on the gallery's new location among happening retail stores and restaurants. The reformulated auction will be "much more lavish," with entertainers along the lines of Flam Chen, Tucson's hot flame-throwing performers, Young said. No longer a lonely Congress Street soirée, the auction may even spill onto Fourth Avenue's thronged sidewalks.

"Maybe we can get a permit for the event to be outside," Young said. "It will be a hip, urban party."

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