Fancy Crafts

Four artists show off rather varied works at Obsidian Gallery

What lurks inside George Peñaloza's fertile brain?

Judging from his ceramic sculptures, anything and everything. His brightly colored ceramics feature an Egyptian pharaoh riding a billiard-ball train; an astronaut turtle holding a tiny planet Saturn; a bird in an Elvis Presley mask perching on a pool table; a tornado sporting a tux and a tie.

And that's just the short list.

Peñaloza's wild menagerie is now on view at Obsidian Gallery, in a four-person show aptly titled Flights of Fancy. Under new ownership for the past year, the gallery specializes in high-end crafts, in clay, fiber, metal and so on. It's no surprise that Tucson artist Peñaloza rebels against the fine clay tradition by mixing his media.

His primary material is glazed stoneware, but he adds color to his crazy concoctions by daubing on oils, acrylics and stains. And his surfaces are rough, with the clay folded, looped and deeply incised.

Take the male ballet dancer in "Playing Pool, Then the Ballet." Tinted in blues, flesh and purples, with bursts of primary colors, he's a screaming figure 30 inches high. He's definitely a man, but he stands on pointe in his pink toe shoes. As the title suggests, he has more than ballet on his mind. His head is smashing through the miniature pool table he's balancing on his arm, and billiard balls rattle around inside his empty head. (His skull is open in the back.)

This crazed character is the Gulliver to a cast of Lilliputians riding the rails below him; they're skittering around a train track on wheeled billiard balls. The pharaoh, his arms at that awkward Egyptian angle, sails along in a yellow ball. Then there's an 18th-century French lady in a powdered wig ogling the giant dancer through opera glasses; her pool ball is purple. An athlete zips along in orange, and a skeleton rides the black 8 ball.

The piece is beyond strange, its juxtaposition of epochs and icons like the random pairings in a dream.

At least in "Save Our Planet," Peñaloza gives some clues to the meaning of the space-flying turtle. In an artist's statement, he notes, rather solemnly, that the turtle "represents the fragility of life" and that the planet suggests the "interconnectedness of our existence." He enlarged the turtle, and downsized the planet, to demonstrate that every living thing, the tall and the small, is equally important.

Nevertheless, he gives the task of delivering this environmental message to a couple of cartoons. The clay turtle sports a lavender shell. The pocked surface of the moon—where the turtle takes his one small step—also happens to be the shell of a female turtle with human feet. She looks up flirtatiously at the manly turtle-naut.

The calm works of California artist Cheryl Tall, the other ceramicist in the show, are a relief from the busyness of Peñaloza's. Tall creates fantastical images, too, of humans and buildings, but her colors are soothing peaches and blues, and each piece has fewer elements. She specializes in tall ceramic women who vaguely suggest earlier figures from art history. Their faces, large and lifelike, are serenely lovely.

The figure in "The Touch" has a curly updo, like a classical statue from Greece or Rome. Her dress is layered in small pieces, like overlapping fish scales. Dangling between her hands is a golden filigree strung with tiny eggs and beads. But it's her face that's most arresting: She stares directly at whoever stares at her, looking through limpid eyes, a Mona Lisa smile playing about her lips.

Another of her giant women, "Orange Zinger," looks like somebody out of the court of Louis XIV. A third conjures up the Middle Ages. Wearing a feathered cap, she's jaunty and boyish, like Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The surprise is that instead of a body, she has a medieval city: Her head and hands emerge from its stacked-up buildings and roofs.

The intriguing little "Sunset Canyon" also makes use of architecture. It's a house like one in a child's drawing, boxy with a pitched roof. A simple landscape is etched into the house's walls: a sloping green hillside, a patch of white cloud, a diagonal of blue sky. Two merged heads emerge from the roofline, each facing a different direction. In Tall's hands, the land, the house and the people are one.

The current gallery owner, Monica Prillaman, continues the Obsidian tradition of occasionally deviating from the craft party line, and the other two artists exhibit mixed-media drawings and watercolors. Valerie Galloway, a Tucson artist who lived in New York for a while, lately has been photographing miniature desert landscapes in black and white. Now she's working on simple watercolors that have an urban edge. Painted on coffee-stained paper, they evoke the weary world of the café and the club.

"Miss Paris 1965" is grim-faced, a dour woman in black against an orange nightlife backdrop. "Black Queen" is also in black, natch, pictured in silhouette against watery green. "Stormy" at least gets its woman outside. All grays and blacks, with umbrellas flying through the air, it has a floating woman wrapped in a cocoon of stripes in gray and black.

Laurel Hansen's Egyptian idylls are the opposite number of Galloway's cool city pix. Camels saunter over golden sand, and tawny-skinned lovers lie tangled in the desert. In "The Hand That Feeds II," a long line of mountains rise on the horizon beneath a deep-blue twilight sky. A sunset reddens the hills in "Sweet Pear Dreams." Painted on paper fragments that suggest papyruses, these mixed-media paintings are a nice combination of chalky line drawings and glittery textured paint.

Dreamy and sensuous as her decorative works are, Hansen has a little of Peñaloza's mischief in her. Green pears drop from the skies, and tiny wooden chairs fly hither and yon. One pear bursts into flame.

And in her small Prismacolor drawing "Dress Me up but Don't Make Me Go Out," strange costumed characters are out for a ride. They scoot along not in billiard balls, but in high heels on wheels. A green bird with a yellow beak sashays through the tiny landscape in a giant orange shoe. A blue woman in a gown, with flaming golden candles on her head, sorties out like the old woman in a shoe, in a red spiked heel.

Flights of fancy indeed.

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