Forms by Females

A dozen of Tucson's top women artists display their creations at Conrad Wilde

Three bronze hens are roosting at Conrad Wilde Gallery, right in time for the real-life 12 days of Christmas.

They may not be the French hens of the song, but they're fine and fat, cast in bronze by local artist Lauri Slenning. Life-sized and realistically rendered, even down to the feathers on their backs, the three chickens preen regally in the group show She Objects! Women Who Make Objects.

"Pecka Mecca" bends over to peck, naturally, at imaginary corn on the imaginary ground, while the two identical "Top Mamas" stand squat and serene, projecting the confidence and contentment typical of their species. Slenning, who holds an MFA from the UA, writes in an artist's statement that her preoccupation with realistic animal images, decidedly rare in the contemporary art world, reflects not only a lifelong love of birds but an interest in "formal issues, materials and craftsmanship."

That trio of values could serve as a theme for the whole show. Miles Conrad, proprietor of the new gallery, asked artist Simon Donovan to curate the group exhibition, which showcases 12 Tucson women artists. Their work embraces all manner of cutting-edge materials, from the foam of a cut-up mattress to encaustic wax to found lamp poles, as well as the more traditional copper and clay and photography. All of the work, no matter how peculiar it sounds--like the 3-D wall pieces made of that cheap cut foam--are governed by a commitment to quality craftsmanship.

Lora Alaniz' cut-foam "Colloidal II" is beautifully and carefully put together, with the narrow, wavy yellow pieces meticulously lined up, horizontal here, vertical there, into a grid of nine squares. Who knew that a mutilated mattress could be beautiful?

In a curator's statement, Donovan confesses to a youthful male chauvinism back in art school, when he would routinely proclaim that he could tell "the difference between male and female artwork." Like his professors, he believed that women tended toward the decorative and the dainty, while men tackled heroic man-sized paintings fit for museums. Chastened by life experience--and his own eventual interest in decorative and patterned art--Donovan penitentially put together this show of "women artists working in Tucson that I respect," he writes. "To me they are simply good artists who happen to be women."

Certainly they're all doing interesting work. Johna Cronk, another UA MFA, has made seven intricate sculptures out of basswood and acrylic paint. They're strange carved abstractions that mimic natural forms. The curving "Nautical" looks like something you'd find at the bottom of the sea; its shell-like segments twist almost, but not quite, into a circle. The pockmarked wood is laboriously worked and polished, and colored in earth tones of beige, brown and black.

Cronk's walnut-shaped "Fern's Endocarp" conjures up the microscopic furrows that line the pits of fruit; they're a richly colored brown, not unlike the inside of a walnut. Cronk, regrettably, hasn't been too visible on the local art scene of late. Now we know why. These pieces obviously gobble up huge chunks of time.

So does the complicated earthenware art of Aurore Chabot, a longtime UA ceramics professor. She makes mysterious works punctuated by small niches and hiding places. Their surfaces vary from rough and earthy to slick and colored. "Sous la Coupe de la Vie" is a modified pyramid that sits on a pedestal. Its dark-brown surface is textured and wavy, but it's embedded by small polished shards of fired ceramic in bright yellows and pinks. An opening on the front leads to a kind of interior cave, colored blue, and housing, of all things, a ceramic human finger colored pink. Chabot's mastery of her technique is astonishing.

In the photography division, metalworker Sharon Holnback adds tiny photos encased in glass to the tops of her cast-off lamp poles. Linda Fry Poverman mixes media into her blue cyanotypes, while up-to-the-minute Martina Shenal deploys the newfangled tools of scanner and ink-jet printer to make surprisingly detailed pictures of a pink flower.

The few paintings in the show come with a twist. Elee Oak reworks her own childhood drawings in small mixed-media paintings filled with scary monsters in black ("The Green Screen") and endearing heart-shaped heads ("Plain as the Nose"). Likewise, Lucinda Childs, who occupied this gallery space a few years back as co-director of Dinnerware, makes encaustic paintings layered with drawings of Mayan heads and what look like Indian gods.

Childs also hangs seasonally appropriate wireworks near her painting "And All Shall Be." Glistening in gold and silver, and embellished with glittery beads and rusted hardware rings, these could be giant Christmas ornaments.

Carrie Seid works year-round in luminous silk on copper, but her glowing pieces also have particular resonance in winter, when the holidays celebrate light piercing the darkness. A talented artist who won an award at the Tucson Museum of Art Biennial in 2003, Seid stretches gorgeously colored silks over shaped copper. Her works hang on the wall like paintings, but their silks are translucent, and the curls and lines of the cut copper parts are visible through the thin cloth.

"The Inner Life of Cardboard" is a swathe of coppery orange silk over horizontal shapes; dark shadows linger among its orange lights. Pale lights mysteriously glow among the scarlets in "Spine Boy II." A brilliant, Christmasy red, this one radiates the joy of the season.

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