Dynamic Duo: A Pair of Shows at the Tucson Museum of Art Explore Radically Different Art Forms

click to enlarge A work by Patrick Martinez, now on display at the Tucson Museum of Art - COURTESY TMA
Courtesy TMA
A work by Patrick Martinez, now on display at the Tucson Museum of Art

If you ever wanted to test your taste in art, get yourself down to the Tucson Museum of Art. The curators have spiced the place up with two radically different art forms on view at the same time but in different galleries.  

Olivier Mosset, a Swiss-born artist now in his 70s who has lived in Tucson for many years, is devoted to pure abstract painting and color. Patrick Martinez, an LA artist, prizes multimedia work that exposes injustice and highlights the lives of people of color.

Upstairs in the main gallery, a show named simply for its artist, Olivier Mosset, is stacked with enormous abstractions. Many hue to one color: you’ll see a giant painting of three yellow circles, another piece that’s a rectangle all in white, and a deep black work that stretches over an entire gallery wall. The trend of all black painting goes back to a Russian artist Kazimir Malevich from the avant-garde in 1915. 

The point of Mosset’s single-colored “monochrome” piece, writes curator Julie Sasse, Ph.D., is that it’s the “ultimate vehicle to eliminate all meaning from the painting and allow the work to stand on its own as an object.” There is no meaning beyond color and shape.

Those are fightin’ words for diehard fans of narrative art. But the other show at the museum is equally serious, if not as cheerful. Patrick Martinez, an LA artist born in 1980, created the installation Look What You Created, a painful exploration of racial discrimination. Inspired in part by the horrors of 2020—including police murders—Martinez’s work is about history and injustice. He uses his narrative art to denounce evils across the centuries in his first solo museum exhibition.

Like Olivier Mosset, Martinez uses materials both beautiful and ordinary. Tongva Landscape, a masterful, multimedia painting uses neon lights, stucco, earth and metal bars to cover the long and sorry history of the Tongva, the name given to the various indigenous peoples who lived in California long before the arrival of the Spanish. 

But the work brings us from past to the present, a time when migrants are reviled. 

A feathered Tongva warrior leans against a contemporary building covered with prison bars. A neon sign on the jail window reads: No Body Is Illegal. Small red ceramic roses—both mournful and joyful—are scattered everywhere.

Other works include drawings of Chicano teens, sometimes dealing with the police. A couple of “cake paintings” feature portraits of the late heroes Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, and Nipsey Hussle, a rapper who particularly inspired black men. They too are honored with flowers. 

Neon signs are everywere. “I am tired of talk that comes to nothing,” says one; “Hate is too great a burden to bear,” declares another. The title of the show, Look What You Created, has two possible meanings: the past may have been heartbreaking, but we can try like hell to create a better future. 

Mosset’s work is also about making the world better, by creating beauty that gives us joy. When you step into his galleries, you (or at least I) get transported by the colors and shapes. Some of the works remind me of the first objects that are given to infants. The clear colors—think of those yellow circles—are just the thing a baby wants to see, and chew. If that’s what we loved as newborns, yellow circles might be just what we need now.

The artist, born in 1944, moved around in radical circles early on.

In the 1960s, he went to Paris, a hot spot for new work, and became enamored with monochrome. According to the text at the show, Mosset, following the efforts of other artists, became known for his single-color works. By 1977, he was in New York and a member of the Radical Painting group.  

By the ’90s, in Tucson, he began experimenting in “shaped canvases,” a form that banished the idea that paintings had to be rectangles.  He works in paintings of all shapes, from giant X forms to Ls and circles and arrows. The new shapes brought a fresh geometry to his work. One piece work in the show is a gloriously colored pieces of geometry with, a big triangle in blazing orange and a second triangle—pure white—that’s upside down.

Mosset is still working. Lately he seems interested in flat rectangular canvases once more. He has a number of delightfully painted squares: a long one in shades of pale green, and some lovely rich blues on paper. The most dramatic, perhaps, is a giant flat checkerboard in the colors of the Tucson sun. Called Camino de Oeste, its red and pink squares blaze in the sunset sky. 

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