Cast in Concrete

Shawna Leigh Spargur's 'solid and permanent' work is one of the highlights of the Arizona Biennial

Shawna Leigh Spargur, born in Tucson in 1985, is one millennial who frets that in a "technological world our connections lessen."

So she decided to do something about it—in concrete.

Her all-concrete installation "Within the Weight of Being," 2012, is one of the standouts in this year's particularly fun edition of the Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art. It fills a whole wall with 125 picture frames molded out of gray concrete; shaped in ovals and circles and squares, they look like the kind of old-fashioned photo frames any great-grandma would have had in her living room. In front of the frames are a couple of tufted hassocks and a little round table, all made of hard concrete.

"I created an intimate space where you contemplate relationships with people," the young artist explained at the Biennial's packed opening on Friday night, July 19.

A December 2012 grad of the UA's School of Art, Spargur made her heavyweight work while still an undergrad, and it got her a solo show at the Lionel Rombach Gallery last summer. And "Weight" has now won her the museum's Contemporary Art Society Award of Excellence.

Its many pieces, elegantly arranged on the wall, are also meticulously crafted. Spargur used a "fabric casting" process to get the look of textured brocade on the comfy-looking footstools.

The whole piece "took four months of casting, and trial and error with the concrete," Spargur said. "Basically I invented the process."

Why concrete?

For one thing, it's about as far from pixels as it's possible to be. It's solid and permanent, the opposite of virtual and fleeting. Likewise, the dark-gray wall that holds the concrete picture frames is real and heavy and present, the anti-Facebook wall. And the material puts the artist in mind of times past.

"When I made the piece, I made it as a memorial," she said. "It was thinking headstones and concrete. I wanted to create a space to ponder."

The Biennial, an every-other-year affair at the museum, was curated this go-round by René Paul Barilleaux, chief curator and curator of art after 1945 at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. A total of 419 artists answered the call and Barilleaux selected 62, whittling some 1,250 submitted works down to 80. In a great showing for Tucson, 33 of these very contemporary artists are from the Old Pueblo. There are 22 are from the Valley of the Sun and five from Flagstaff; one each hail from Jerome and Sonoita. The state's younger artists, many of them freshly hatched from the art schools at the UA and ASU, made an impressive showing. I counted two as young as 23, and one 21-year-old.

Barilleaux wrote that he was attracted to works with a "highly tactile quality"—like Spargur's tufted hassocks—and to artists with "vision" and "technical proficiency." He came up with a show that's strong in the traditional disciplines of photography, painting and sculpture. But he also found room for shrines (Moira Marti Geoffrion's "The Disappeared," strewn with hundreds of flowers below paintings of flowers) and a room-sized, tongue-in-cheek multimedia faux graveyard (Jill Marie Mesa's "In the Dark"). "Nothing Lasts Forever" reads a banner strung over the grave.

In the category of wild things, another youthful Tucsonan, Jesse Berlin, born in 1981, made a classic bronze deer, but chopped it in half to reveal the bloody innards inside.

And in the category of really, really wild things, George C. Peñaloza's "Twisted Not Stirred 2," is a wonderful, wacked-out homage to The Wizard of Oz in colored ceramic. Picture a hollow twister-headed guy drinking a twister martini, and all the main players—Wicked Witch, Dorothy, Cowardly Lion—swirling in and out of the guy's hung-over head.

Kerstin Jones Dale of Flagstaff calms things down with her serene sculptural abstraction "Plywood #5," a lovely twist of layered wood gently curved into spirals. Nearby, in "Mountain Roads and Copper Mines," Phil Rowland of Tempe uses wood to metaphorical effect. He's shaped two ghost cabins out of pure wood, and place one atop the other. The bottom one, embedded in concrete, is collapsing under the weight of the upper.

A passel of fine painters paint everything from jazzy graffiti (Christopher Jagmin) to starry abstractions (Mike Stack) to a biographical stack of CDs (Amanda Ivy Reed). Jacob Fischer of Tempe, born in 1985, made three small, dark oil paintings that deftly capture tiny points of light piercing inky-black cityscapes. He also paid attention to the panels they're painted on, shaving the thick wood back at an angle and polishing it to a fine sheen.

Another young Tempe artist, photographer Eduardo L. Rivera, born in 1989, contributed "Amarillo," a beautifully composed picture of a deserted Mexican diner. Light slants in over the empty Formica tabletops. Water glistens on the floor. And along the peeling paint on the walls and pillars, you can still read the menu: carne asada with arroz and frijol. Rivera made this photo way back in 2011, when he was—what?—21 or 22.

Sarah Rowland, born in 1980, also hails from Tempe. Like Spargur, Rowland has made so bold as to take over an entire wall, and like Spargur she's used a domestic space for her own artistic purposes. But her material is lighter. Her delightful "From the Kitchen," 2013, is made of paper, punctured by small holes, and surrounded by plain wood frames that mimic the lines of kitchen cabinetry.

The whole thing is a life-sized drawing. The papers are cut to the size and shapes of a real door and refrigerator, and counters and cabinetry. Rowland has "drawn" their contents—bowls, plates, mustard jars, milk cartons, the lot—by puncturing the paper with neat little holes. Those holes, trailing one after another, turn into the drawing's beautiful "lines."

The poked-hole teapot, pictured with extreme foreshortening on a high shelf, is a small masterpiece. This is a paper kitchen where you want to linger and have a cup of paper tea before wandering back to commune with kin in Spargur's concrete living room.

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