Gems Among the Schlock

Our reviewer takes a mini art tour through the foothills

Barbara Rogers is not ashamed of making beautiful paintings.

She paints "to evoke the sublime, to reaffirm the existence of beauty and the critical importance of cherishing the earth," she writes in a statement for her show at Azora Gallery.

On a mini art tour of the foothills in gorgeous spring weather, I found the gallery filled with her 10 large oils on canvas and three small paintings, all of them sleek and glistening. Delicately painted natural elements float over shimmering swathes of color. Seed pods, leaves, webs and latticeworks trace their tendrils over ambiguous geometric spaces that suggest architecture or gardens or even infinity. The colors are as lovely and serene as the canary-yellow palo verdes blooming outdoors on Orange Grove Road: sunshine yellow, sky blue, earth green, terra cotta.

A delicious rusty orange occupies the central panel of the gigantic triptych "Spice Garden," 11 feet across and 6 feet high. Sage green takes up the two side segments, interrupted here and there by a vertical stripe of that spicy orange. The background paint is layered and glossy, not exactly thick, but textured. Puffballs and pods from the garden are like painted drawings drifting across this meditation-scape.

A retired professor of art at the UA, Rogers has shown her work over the years around the United States and in Korea, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. She has a master's degree in painting from the University of California at Berkeley, but Richard Diebenkorn was one of her teachers earlier at the San Francisco Art Institute. Diebenkorn, the quintessential California painter of light, fractured his canvases into geometric bands of color.

Rogers' work likewise is heavily inspired by place, particularly her frequent travels—her most recent trip was to India, and some Indian design patterns show up in a few smaller works. But unlike Deibenkorn, Rogers never paints the physical reality of the place. Her geometries, most of them vertical bands, distill a place into pure color.

The artist has also been experimenting with encaustic—colored wax—in the busy two years since she retired from the UA. The "Improvisation" series thickly embeds the encaustic with the oil on panel, pink-orange in no. 2, mint green and black in no. 3. Rogers' fondness for the vertical comes out in these jazzy pieces, too. All of them are organized around straight up-and-down bands, each with spirals curling out, either leaves or musical notes.

Azora is a newish art outpost in the foothills, showing contemporary work at Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive in the ghastly faux-Mexican plaza just south of La Encantada, and catty-corner from Gallery Row at El Cortijo, another architectural failure. Gallery director Faitha Lowe-Bailey is bravely pursuing a program of Mexican and contemporary American art. She's trying to survive in a quarter where the art that thrives runs the gamut from expertly painted landscape and cowboy art to the cactus schlock of Diana Madaras. Lowe-Bailey says the cheerful abstractions of Jeffrey Jonczyk are up next.

A few miles to the west, Tohono Chul Park has a disappointing colored-pencil show. Colored pencil is a wonderful medium, at its best combining the pigmented virtues of paint with the pleasures of the spare line. There is nothing spare about the work in Pencil Persuasion; its pieces are by and large overworked and dense, with little of the negative space that makes the drawings of, say, Maynard Dixon so mouth-watering.

To be fair, a few of the artists in the juried show, all of them from the Colored Pencil Society of America, Phoenix Chapter, produced some interesting work amid all the dogs and flowers and deer. Helen Rowles' "Peeled Apples" had a pleasing off-center composition, and a nice circular line to the assembled green apples, all of them shining in the light. First-prize winner Kare Williams drew an imposing bank building in extreme perspective, its pillars and lanterns crazily askew. Likewise, Virginia Carroll took a snake's-eye view of a "Soaring Saguaro." Its fat green arms punch up into a sky that meanders from cerulean to ultramarine. Rose Moon had fun with "White Sugar," picturing a brigade of gumball machines marching in a sharp V.

Down the mountain and east along the river, the Tucson Jewish Community Center on River Road is in the last days of the Elliott Heiman solo show, The Vibrancy of Life.

Heiman is an unabashedly old-fashioned painter who has absorbed the lessons of the dark Expressionists and the colorful Fauves. He's almost as wild as those French beasts with his crayon-bright colors, but they're hemmed in, shadowed, by the black line of the Expressionists. Painted with a loaded brush that's relatively dry, Heiman's work is matte, with no sheen at all. The brushstrokes are short and energetic, jumping all over his canvas and paper in bursts of color.

A retired psychiatrist, Heiman is a figurative painter who pays attention to human relationships, and his works are about life and love and families. Grandmothers and grandfathers and mothers and kids tumble through his joyous desert landscapes. In the most powerful works, though, the faces have no features; the love of a mother for her babies, of a father for a nearly grown son, is drawn in gesture. "Play on Mom" is a near-abstraction of the seated mother's green dress swooping around her bouncing kids; her long arms and legs enfold them. In "Man to Man I," 2008, one of the best of the roughly 40 pieces, a father is dressed in old-fashioned shorts, suggesting a father from long ago. He leans back and listens intently to his son, while the boy reaches toward the older man. Their faces are quick studies devoid of expression. It's their body language that speaks the loudest about their connection.

Heiman trained in his native Philadelphia, studying at the Philadelphia Art Museum as a child. While he was in college and medical school, according to a catalog essay by guest curator Dan Leach, he took the free lessons on offer at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Italian South Philly. Early works from medical school days, especially "Dead Baby" and "Hospital Teaching Rounds," are eerie and original. During a stint as a military psychiatrist at a field hospital in Saigon, Heiman even painted on cardboard, making jumbled apocalyptic images of war and the wounded.

It's a pity there's a gap between these promising early works and the bulk of the paintings, done in the last year or two. Unlike Barbara Rogers, a full-time artist, Heiman had another occupation, teaching from 1970 on at the UA College of Medicine, and serving poor patients in the community at El Rio, La Frontera and elsewhere. In his retirement, he's turned all of his attention to art, working under fellow Philadelphia transplant Bailey Doogan, another retired UA prof.

Some of the dark themes of Heiman's early years have resurfaced. "Insomnia," 2007, is a terrifying nightmare in bold strokes of white and yellow and gray on black, of a monster emerging from the darkness. The helpless dreamer, barely recognizable as human, cowers in a lower corner. "Man in Wheelchair," 2003, about the painter's father, now sadly reduced from the robust man in shorts, is a reminder of mortality.

More often, Heiman sticks to the sunny side, which is where a psychiatrist hopes to lead a despairing patient. In "Family Melody," 2008, two fathers stand on either side of the painting, their bodies bending toward the center, forming a protective triangular frame around their children. Inside this composition (the "Golden Triangle" in academic art), a gaggle of kids play in the garden, their dresses and shirts matching the brilliant red of the flowers and the yellow of the grass, the very picture of happiness and harmony.