La Vida Verde

Raices Taller shows off a wide variety of artists in this recycled-materials show

Jessie Shinn has come up with the best way to recycle notebook paper: Turn it into a work of art.

In the Viviendo Verde (Living Green) show at Raices Taller 222, Shinn has succeeded in turning trash into a thing of beauty. She's made three wonderfully abstracted landscape drawings on notebook paper. You can dimly see the paper's lines and the artist's written words underneath the dramatic ink shadows and charcoal textures—but you don't exactly care, because the little drawings, paired two to a frame, are so handsome.

"Wilderness" has jagged peaks against the sky; its dark ink passages alternate with pale charcoal to suggest canyons sloping down the mountainsides. "Waves" is grayer and paler; its inky lines roll horizontally across the paper, the way the surf breaks on the beach. And the lines in "Storms," the only vertical piece, are like calligraphy, darting in angular strokes that mimic lighting and cracks in the earth.

Across from Shinn's lovely homages to nature hangs their opposite number: a tart work about human foibles. Diane Aldrich Kleiss' "Two Blocks of 'O' Road" is made almost entirely of found cigarette butts.

Kleiss gave herself the task of picking up every cigarette butt she could find on a designated stretch of a Tucson road. (I'm guessing Oracle.) I'm sorry to report that the artist found hundreds of used butts. Let's hope she used plastic gloves.

Back in the studio, she sealed up the nasty things in encaustic wax, and then crammed them alongside a painted blacktop roadway. Hung vertically on the wall, the litter-lined highway gives us a bird's-eye view of humans' inhumanity to nature. We pave it over, then muck it up some more with our trash.

For Viviendo Verde, Raices Taller invited some 32 regional artists to recycle trash into art. Like Shinn and Kleiss, the other artists have been wildly inventive in the junk they picked.

Here's a short list of just some of their materials: beer caps (thousands of them, in Pauline H. Pedregon's stunning installation "A Tribute for Pollack"); soil from the site of the old San Manuel mine (in Ceci Garcia's "Miner's Cathedral," from her Underground Fire series); and rock, paper and scissors (in Monique Laraway's charming "Rock Paper Scissors").

Andrea Kashanipour used popsicle sticks; Mary Theresa Dietz painted on used stencil cloth; Keith Marroquin gathered up seashells; Mel Dominguez cut out magazine covers; and Shavana Smiley stacked up books.

Plenty of artists adapted the format of Mexican household shrines, which are known for incorporating found objects of all kinds, from plastic flowers to photos of loved ones.

Greta Ward's "True Hero Is Swift & Flies on Swallows' Wings" is a good example. She studded a rough wooden box with fake jewels and framed it with curling white wings that look like they might have been sliced off of Grandma's dining-room chairs. The silvery face on the inside—a death mask, perhaps?—is mottled with white paint. A coppery banner, of the sort that angels carry aloft in the heavens, floats below the face.

Ward's shrine hangs on the wall, but Marc David Leviton and Kyle Johnston provide a variation on the theme by making theirs freestanding and supersized. "Annunciation Altar" is 11 feet tall and divided into three vertical sections, all of which look like they were made of salvaged crates or furniture. At the top is a skull in a kind of reliquary. In the middle, a face is trapped inside a glass jar. Best of all, at the bottom, is a milky-white plaster cast of a life-sized female torso. With her bulging breasts and torso, this woman already looks pregnant. She didn't need to wait for the angel Gabriel's announcement.

In a move typical of Raices Taller, the show juxtaposes emerging artists with successful pros. It has one bona fide acclaimed painter, David Tineo, who just last year had a retrospective at the Tucson Museum of Art. It's not immediately apparent where recycling comes into Tineo's glittery "Amante China," but the painting is lovely, and thickly and expertly painted.

Not all of the recyclables end up as art that is as accomplished as Tineo's. Marroquin found some pretty shells on the beach, but in "Another Word," he hasn't done much more than attach them to some recycled metal. Likewise with Smiley's books. Her "Body of Knowledge" piles up old forgotten volumes (Americans Into Orbit, for example, and Shakespeare's Life and World), one atop the other. At the tippy-top is a glass head. That's it.

Artists like Linda Bohlke do perhaps too much. Her "Firefly" is a conglomeration of metal and other found objects, all jammed together into a dense 3-D shape, black and rusted and sticking out of the wall.

John Salgado, who manages Raices Taller with Ceci Garcia, says the gallery relishes the diversity in its shows—in age, in ethnicity, in experience.

"Our mission has always been to connect artists and people in the community who are underserved by the galleries," he says. "A lot of those people are in the barrios—people who've done art most of their lives, but never showed in a gallery. Some are self-taught."

The Latino-oriented gallery maintains a tight schedule of six-week shows year-round, and has never missed an exhibition in 15 years, Salgado boasts. The gallery will celebrate that 15th anniversary this fall.

"We're calling it our quinceañera," he jokes.

A nonprofit that prides itself on outreach to the community, Raices stages a multitude of programs. University of Arizona Spanish majors come to the gallery to tell bilingual stories to kids and sing songs. Seniors from the Armory Park Senior Center turn up each fall to make Día de los Muertos altars to honor those they've lost.

The Native American poet Sherwin Bitsui has staged a poetry slam, and Chicana activist Dolores Huerta turns up on César Chavez Day.

"We don't define art narrowly," Salgado says.

Viviendo Verde proves the point. Donna Stoner's over-the-top sculpture, "Miss Gently Used and Her Junkyard Dog," almost single-handedly redefines what art is. The clanky lady with curly paper hair is made of everything from wine bottles to plastic forks to metal shells. She's walking her little dog, holding the leash with her salad-spoon hand.

Little Spot is quite a looker himself. His fur is composed of dozens of magazine pages origami-ed into tiny folds. And his head? It's a vegetable steamer gleaming in the light. You can almost hear him bark.

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