Distilled Aesthetic Essence!

It's hot as hell ... so that means it's time for the Sizeys!

The mercury has already shot up to 107 degrees. Dry winds are blowing, and wildfires are burning. That means one thing, at least to me: It's time for the Sizeys contest at Small Things Considered: The 20th Small Works Invitational at Davis Dominguez Gallery.

This lively assemblage, exhibiting tiny artworks packed with color and cool, always offers an antidote to the blasts of a Southwest summer. More than 80 artists were invited to participate this year, given instructions to operate under the gallery's not-so-strict rules to keep the paintings to 12 inches square, and sculptures to 18 inches high. I'm happy to report admirable compliance, though I will say that Tom Philabaum ("Bluesman") and Alfred Quiroz ("St. Anak") naughtily soared to illicit heights.

The Sizeys don't necessarily reward obedience to the size restrictions, though the contest judge—that's me—is always charmed when artists like Claire Campbell Park distill the aesthetic essence of their work into a minuscule package. See her "Blue," a miniature tapestry of paper that's as exquisite as her big cloth weavings.

The annual Sizeys are mostly meant to be fun—art-review lite, scaled down to size. Who feels like writing serious art criticism in this weather, anyway? I go wherever my inclination takes me. And this time of year, I don't mind confessing that I've got water on the brain. What moves me most is art that conjures up seas and breezes and water that's very, very wet.

Let's get things under way with Best Blue. The winner is Moira Marti Geoffrion, no contest. She paints the bluest blue you can imagine in "The Bird and The Bees," a glossy, lush oil on board. A flotilla of bumblebees in yellow and black sail across her blue sky (or blue sea?); a fine bird's head is an inset. I'm not sure if Geoffrion is going all metaphorical here about sex, but all nautical is fine with me.

Philabaum's "Bluesman," a series of three glistening glass globes—all blue, of course—piled one atop the other, makes him the Blue runner-up with Park.

Wettest Abstraction goes to Emilia Arana, whose oil painting "Pacifica" suggests waves crashing on the shore, in big wallops of teal, ochre and cerulean. Most Recognizable Seashore belongs to the late Bruce McGrew; his "Scottish Coast" is a fine, bracing oil of the northern seas. And Charlotte Bender is Honorary Water Detective for finding—and painting—a cooling stream at the bottom of "Flip and Fold." This clever three-part horizontal acrylic, painted on separate canvases, depicts a refreshing sylvan glade.

Neda Contreras, who runs Contreras Gallery next door to Davis Dominguez with her husband, Michael, wins for Best Fantasy Vacation. Her oil on canvas "Brown Pelican and Martini" pictures the ubiquitous bird of the not-so-distant shore of the Sea of Cortez. A prehistoric-looking creature with a long bill and a pot belly, the pelican stands on the beach surrounded by its day's catch of fish. But what really has the big bird's eye is the giant-size martini standing invitingly to the right, propped up right there in the sand.

Bettina Fink provides the Best Vacation Right Here in Town in "Tumamoc," a fine little plein-air pastel of the beloved local peak. In the cool of the early morning, or after the heat of day, you can climb Tumamoc's steep trail and get the best views in town. In broad, quick strokes, Fink captures the mackerel sky that hikers see overhead, and the pale greens and reds of the glorious desert plants at their feet.

Daredevil photog Jeff Smith wins again for Best Lightning. He deserves repeated prizes for his bravery in searching out the lightning that heralds our monsoon storms. "Golden One" conjures up a vast landscape—look for the teensy telephone poles on the horizon. Much of the foreground is bone-dry brown (just like the view right out my window, come to think of it), and a dangerous yellow light breaks through the dark clouds. A white-hot lightning bolt cracks open this scene, auguring well for the rain to come.

Dramatic skies are also the province of Debra Salopek, another Sizey favorite. This gifted artist paints like an Old Master, in luminous layers of oil. Over the years, she's shifted from Patagonia to New Mexico and now to Nebraska, but no matter where she lives, she keeps her eyes on the skies. "Nebraska Landscape" wins her another Beautiful Clouds for its giant sky agitated by dark blue clouds above, and a curve of white cloud below. At the bottom, almost forgotten, is a band of spring-green prairie.

Let's pull ourselves in, for a moment, from the great outdoors, and the heat, and think about art technique. Adan Bañuelos came up with a mysterious, even ominous, still-life, "The Key 2." But he wins for Best Old-Fashioned Drawing, because his padlock and key, and what looks like a bullet in between, are gorgeously rendered in pencil on paper.

The adventurous Monika Rossa gets the nod for Most Unexpected Switch in Style. Her carefully painted woman, in the oil-on-board "With the Gloves," is a departure from her usual loose expressionist work. With her hair tucked into a net and a lace wrap around her shoulders, Rossa's tidy Renaissance lady could be a bride of Henry VIII.

Best Encaustic goes to Miles Conrad for his dark "This Too Shall Pass." Conrad, who shows many wax-based paintings in his Conrad Wilde Gallery, is himself a master of the medium. Here, he layers his luscious encaustics in somber beiges, ambers and blacks, with a glow between two roundish shapes. With hints of bodies and hairs, there's a sense of unease. Runner-up is Beata Wehr, for "RLV 12," a decidedly more-cheerful encaustic abstraction in yellow, turquoise and green.

The always-wonderful Judith Stewart wins for Best Clay. Fresh off a major Davis Dominguez show of her full-size sculptural bodies, interrupted by cracks and patches, Stewart made two beautiful tiny works, Studies, 1, 2, of partially formed female figures emerging from soft sand-colored clay. Barbara Jo McLaughlin also gets a sculptural nod for "Fool," a nice stoneware pedestal piece that to certain ocean-obsessed minds suggests a sand-drip castle.

Boldest, but Most Depressing, Clay goes to Mary Stevens Rogot, previous winner for Best Hammer, and Most Fun Clay, for a clay typewriter. Once again, she's created an eerily realistic object out of clay. What's changed the mood is Rogot's subject. "A Dying Read" is about the death of paper daily newspapers. A clay truck is a kind of hearse, hauling off tiny bundles of fallen Globes and Posts.

Sculptor Gary Benna came up with the Best Op Art in "Save the Last Dance for Me." Crafted in clay, glaze, wood and paint, it's an out-there assemblage of spheres covered in circus-y colors and shapes. On top, a circular disc is actually stationary clay, but the black-and-white spirals spinning across its surface turn it in the mind's eye into twirling shiny metal. Katherine Josten's "Lesson Boards"—simple slabs of polished wood, with the words "here" and "now" inked again and again—gets Most Conceptual.

Andy Rush, master of line and printing, created the perfect "Agave," a delicately etched desert scene with a cross-hatched cactus front and center on the horizon line. Give him Best Old-Fashioned Intaglio. And for Best New-Fashioned Media, there's Leslie Ann Epperson's Polaroid dye-transfer pastel, "Bend, Not Break," picturing a tree canopy in cyanotype blue, and Regina Heitzer-Momaday's "Ascending," a mysterious mixed-media work—Photo? Print?—that suggests a transparent dress.

Last year, David Brown used a ladder as an Everyman in a drawing that won Best Coffee art. This year, he gets Best Chair for his sculpture "Stroller," wherein a 3-D chair skitters across a slice of foam board, leaving painted blue tracks behind. The plucky dollhouse-size chair, rusty-looking but determined to move, becomes another Everyman—make that Everychair—struggling valiantly to get through life, or maybe just trying to survive a Sonoran summer.