Feminist Testimony

Dinnerware's juried exhibition returns a mixed verdict.

When artists submit their work to a juried art competition, some believe that they have as good a chance of having their work selected as any other artist. That is pure naiveté.

Art exhibitions that are selected by one juror are molded by the aesthetics of that juror. In 1999, when the Tucson Museum of Art changed from using three jurors to using one for its Arizona Biennial, many Tucson artists who were used to getting into the Biennial got in an uproar about not making the cut. Some of them did quality artwork, but it just didn't fit the cutting-edge, contemporary aesthetics of juror Louis Grachos, the director of SITE Santa Fe. In its Arizona Biennial 2001, TMA continued the trend of bringing in a juror interested in cutting-edge art in hopes of expanding Tucson's art scene beyond regional art.

Tucson National Juried Exhibition, the current show at the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, is another example of a juried exhibition that is heavily molded by the aesthetics and interests of its juror. Harmony Hammond, the exhibition juror, is a professor of art at the University of Arizona. She is nationally known as one of the first generation of feminist artists and activists. Hammond's artwork has become increasingly abstract and her feminist content has become more obscure through the years, which is clear from her current exhibition at HazMat. (That exhibition closes Saturday.)

Tucson National Juried Exhibition features 38 works by 22 artists. Of the artists selected, 16 are from Tucson, five are from elsewhere in Arizona and one is from Maryland--hardly a national exhibition, but Hammond didn't have much national work to choose from. Although Mauricio Toussaint, president of Dinnerware's artist board of directors, says Dinnerware advertised the competition nationally, only 10 of the 81 submissions they received were from artists outside the state. The gallery received twice as many total submissions for last year's competition, according to Barbara Jo McLaughlin, Dinnerware's former executive director. In a recent interview, McLaughlin said that the 2002 juried-exhibition committee didn't do a good a job at organizing the national advertising.

Almost half of the artworks in the exhibition deal with feminist content, including women's roles in society, women's bodies, women's history and the depiction of women in art. For example, in "Looking Up My Apron," Tucsonan Io Palmer wraps white chef's aprons around a dressmaker's mannequin to create a full-length dress, a nice form. It could be a wedding dress, although the white hem has already been blackened with footprints just as the notion of purity that it symbolizes has been muddied. Of course, this would be a marriage based on traditional female roles.

Tucsonan Katie Hollister's series of four oil-and-acrylic-on-canvas portraits of women ("Prime Time #1, #2, #3 and #4") have a 1980s look about them, as do a number of the paintings in the exhibition. Each woman has a different hairstyle and different clothes but the same sultry pose. None of their eyes have been painted in. The series is a comment on the shallowness and the underlying sexuality of women's roles on television.

The problem with this work and much of the feminist artwork in the exhibition is that it is stale. The feminist art movement began 30 years ago, and there is no reason for it to ever end since many women's issues never will. One of the most difficult tasks that any artist faces is to make her art her own. The first generation of feminist artists had the advantage of being able to explore, for the first time, issues that had been off-limits for artists, like women's sexuality. Second- and third-generation feminist artists have to find both content and style that are not derivative.

In Dinnerware's juried exhibition, the strongest pieces are those that are either subtle in their connection to women's issues or are part of the half of the exhibition that don't deal with women's issues.

Phoenix artist Monica Aissa Martinez's small mixed-media painting "Queen of Cups" is a surreal Tarot card. The traditional queen sitting on a throne has been transformed into a strange apparatus made of a giant teacup dispensing liquid into many smaller cups. The plants growing beside the machine have sprouted anatomical human hearts. The patterning and the childlike drawing style are reminiscent of outsider art. It would probably be hard to carry off an extended series of Tarot images without lapsing into sentimentality, but the joyful quality and saturated colors with matte surfaces of this one are appealing.

Tucsonan Alice L. Briggs' "Snare" is both literal and mysterious. The scene set in an underground parking lot has been scratched on black clay board with touches of gray paint added. A precisely rendered contraption with a crank and a rope spring is sitting in the foreground on bunched-up netting. The snare is a symbol for danger in this dark place where two people hover in the background. Plenty of artists have used contraptions as symbols, but Briggs renders hers well and then places them in disconcerting contexts.

Tucsonan E.M. Contreras draws on the work of Spanish engraver José Guadalupe Posada to create what should be the best-of-show piece. Contreras includes a text at the bottom of his pen-and-ink work "Limbus Infantium" ("Infant Limbo") to explain the imagery. He writes that he created the work when a priest couldn't answer his questions about limbo (the Catholic doctrine that says souls can be kept from heaven by circumstances such as lack of baptism). For his artwork, Contreras uses imagery from Posada, who was illustrating conflicts of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the same year that the Catholic Church accepted the concept of limbo.

In "Limbus Infantium," Posada is crawling out of a steaming hole with a cackling skeleton clinging to his back. Posada is known for using "calaveras" (skulls) and skeletons, and Contreras' scene is full of skeletons, including some in mariachi garb. A giant baby and a half-living, half-skeletal boy floating in the steam create a surreal scene that surely is like no limbo Catholicism ever imagined. That's what's wonderful about the image: It makes visual the bizarre notion of being suspended between heaven and hell through no fault of one's own. Contreras' style is realistic like Posada's was, and like Posada, Contreras is stylistically out of step with his time, which is refreshing.

Tucson National Juried Exhibition hangs together well. Some works, like Contreras' "Limbus Infantium," fall within the multicultural interests of a political aesthetic. Other pieces have a postmodern style that fits with some of the feminist artworks. Group exhibitions that are a jumble generally are not very satisfying for the viewer, so even though juried exhibitions with a strong curatorial hand can be frustrating to competing artists, they do make for more coherent and provocative experiences for the viewer.

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