Fire and Fury

The temperature is scalding and so is the art in Ay Qué Calor! at Raices Taller

What makes it so hot in Tucson?

Let Ay Qué Calor! (oh that heat!) count the ways. Here in the sizzling Sonoran Desert, the record-shattering, global-warming temps top the list of culprits. Then there are hot tamales and even hotter chilis, lightning that bolts and forest fires that rage. Good old lust triggers a different kind of heat, and so do the daily headlines about a government gone mad.

Invited to make art about heat, no small number of the 60-some artists in the Raices show turned to fiery politics.

For "Liar, Liar Pants on Fire," Linda Bohlke scorched a pair of toddler jeans and emblazoned them with the flaming face of our president, Mr. Fire and Fury himself. In "Death Wish 27," a dirge for Americans killed by guns, Michael Cajero made papier-mâché handguns, then set them ablaze. The blackened pistols dangle from the ceiling in a grisly mobile, twisting in the air above a bloodied papier-mâché body.

Pancho Medina, working in the Chicano tradition of "rasquacho"—the art of making do with materials at hand-created "Cine Piojo." A tiny "flea" theater that looks like a little girl's toy, it's painted pink and white and studded with sequins. But instead of a child's paper-doll play, Teatro Medina is hosting a grim drama about a killing along the border, one that echoes the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Mexican José Antonio Elena Rodriguez by a Border Patrol agent.

There's a border wall inside the theater, its line of tiny metal poles matching the real ones that split Ambos Nogales in two. In front of this barrier, advertised as Making America Great Again, a rifle labeled "Border Patrol" is firing bullets into the body of a dark-skinned man.

Elena Campbell turns to old-fashioned acrylics on canvas but she sticks to the heat theme. Her "La Bochornosa" is a richly colored portrait of a woman burning up with hot flashes. Drops of sweat roll down her forehead, she's waving a fan at her face and she's in the middle of a full-throated wail.

But the meaning of this painting goes beyond the change of life. With her golden halo and traditional traje, the woman becomes a Mexican Madonna mourning the woes of the world. And in this season, when migrants are dying by the dozens in the heat of Arizona's killing fields, she is a mythic La Llorona, the weeping mother of the borderlands. (So far this fiscal year, 131 bodies have been found in southern Arizona, a whopping 24 more than the 107 at this time last year. That grim tally doesn't even count the deaths in Texas.)

Mercifully, the grueling desert heat can be gorgeous as well as deadly, and other artists in the show revel in its redeeming beauty. Joe Rebholz captures the glory of the summer sunset in his digital painting "Color Calor"; flame yellow and orange burn against his panoramic sky. In "Agave," Laura Vitkus paints a close-up of the classic desert plant. With its sharp leaves pushing out like rays of light, the agave has metamorphosed into a blazing sun.

Chris Tanz, best known for her public art, has a little fun in the garden with her "Summertime and the Living Is..." series. Her subject is the colorful figeater beetle, a jewel-like bug with shapely green wings; during these hot desert days, the figeater plows through the pink fruit of the prickly pear fruit, the closest thing, apparently, to the fig in these parts. Tanz has made two sumptuous color portraits of this humble beetle at work, magnified to a majestic size. Mary Beth Medley present an antidote to the summer swelter in watercolors of liquid refreshments for humans, including inviting painted pitchers of "Frosty Lemonade."

A few artists tackle good old lust, conjuring up steaming bodies wrapped together as one. Patrick Hynes has two sets of tree trunks polished and paired to look like lovers in heat. The curves of the sleek branches in "Tango" and "Hot Love Goddess "uncannily suggest not only the human nude, male and female alike, but human desire. The late Salvador Cardenal Barquero, a late Nicaraguan singer who was part of Duo Guardabarranco, posthumously exhibits "El Calor del Amor"—the heat of love—a textured mixed-media painting of two young lovers reclining in bed.

Carolyn King's ode to love, "El Calor de Adentro" (heat from within), a mixed media on canvas, comes in the form of a powerful woman with Aztec roots. Her body is sinewy and tattooed; one arm ends not with a hand but with the head of a sacred jaguar. Holding this potent hand across her heart, seat of love and passion, she stands ready to vanquish the fire and fury elsewhere.

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