Multiple Strands

Early-career artists take up many of the slots at the Tucson Museum of Art's 'Biennial '09'

Artist Michael Nolan is not yet 30 years old, but his self-portrait is one of the most old-fashioned works in the Arizona Biennial '09 at the Tucson Museum of Art.

The every-other-year survey of contemporary Arizona art is known for its cutting-edge art materials, and this year's edition has plenty. Straight pins, tabloid magazines, a doctor's scale, numbered stickers and a faux-fur tent all make their way into the artworks in the 50-piece show. But Tucsonan Nolan, born in 1980, turns to old-school oil paint for his 2009 "Self-Portrait With Subtle Yet Intoxicating Emotions."

That's not a bad thing. Nicely drawn and thickly painted in quick expressionist brushstrokes, it's a glossy, lively work. And the painting has its own innovations. Nolan limited the colors on the face to an unrealistic monochrome of white, gray and black, while painting the backdrop a glowing burnt sienna. He does not hesitate, in a very contemporary way, to clue us in to his own psyche: His eyes are tight shut, and his face is screwed up into a grimace that stops just short of anguish.

Nolan's opposite number in the self-portrait category is Simon Donovan. A good 20 years older than Nolan, Donovan is the one experimenting with new media, in his 2008 video self-portrait, "Lament of the Mediocre Regional Middle-Aged Art Star Wannabe." Well-known around town for his public art, most famously the Diamondback Bridge on Broadway Boulevard, Donovan jumped genres

a couple of years ago to become a performance artist. Lately, he's gotten some attention for the stand-up monologues he does around town.

His "Lament" ingeniously merges his two art forms: It's a video that's framed and hangs on the wall. If you cover your ears to block out the sound of Donovan singing and talking, you might even believe it's a painting not unlike Nolan's. The motionless background is a deep blue universe sparkling with stars. But in the center, poking through one of the silver- painted stars, is a video cut-out of Donovan's gold-painted head in motion. The spoken words pouring out of his video head limn woes as readily as Nolan's twisted-up face. Donovan's soliloquy is a deeply personal confession, 10 minutes long, that airs his fears that his best years as an artist are already behind him.

The two self-portraits—one painted, one digital—are yin and yang, and that's deliberate. Biennial guest judge Tim Rodgers, chief curator of the New Mexico Museum of Art, explains in a note that he wanted to show multiple strands in contemporary art. Many of the pieces he chose have polar opposites. Some works are dark, others light, he notes; others are funny or serious, sensitive or ironic, odd or traditional. Nolan may be traditional and Donovan odd, but both have a legitimate place at the table of contemporary art.

The 44 artists who made it in—including 23 from Tucson—prevailed in a tough competition. All artists in Arizona ages 18 and up were eligible to enter, and this year, 411 tried their luck. Judging by their birthdates, quite a few are still early in their careers, but the show includes several 60-somethings. A few artists made it in with two works, bringing the total number of pieces on view up to 50.

Phoenix artist Angela Ellsworth is one of the high achievers who aced the contest with two sculptures. She's also one who uses startling materials: She laboriously constructed two prickly pioneer bonnets entirely out of hatpins.

Her "Seer Bonnets" are decorative—the pearly pinheads glisten on the outside—but the sharp, silvery points inside are dangerous. They would pierce any pioneer woman's head. Her hats are a nod to the old female arts, the stitching work women once did to manufacture clothing for their families. While she honors their skill—and their bravery on the pioneer trails where they wore such bonnets—she ponders the tedium, and the danger, of their restricted lives.

Peter Bugg of Tempe also turns a sympathetic eye on cultural norms that push women around. His 3-D "Diets That Work" consists entirely of 40 pounds of tabloid magazines piled on a doctor's scale. (The cover story in the rag on top details "How J. Lo Lost 40 lbs.") While Ellsworth still prizes craft in her use of ready-made materials, Bugg has reduced his artistic enterprise entirely to the idea, another trend embraced by many younger artists. All he had to do was collect and pile.

The title of Andrea Jensen's large painting on a recycled billboard, "Body Fat," suggests that she's investigating the same territory as Bugg. But her work is as different from his as Donovan's is from Nolan's. She was inspired, she writes, by the psychological spaces she inhabits when she's out running and walking, and the result is a loose, lovely stylized landscape. Bare trees, painted maroon, tilt across a sloping hillside. Swathes of translucent pink, orange and blue sweep over the vinyl, and patches of the billboard show through. Born like Nolan in 1980, she is a resident in Tucson; the two young artists may be a harbinger of a painting renaissance in town.

Book artist Beata Wehr of Tucson also combines painting and found objects. She's put her own marks on her expired Polish passport to create an elliptical portrait of her bi-cultural life. Inside, she's painted the saguaro cacti of her adopted home, but she's mixed them with old-world carved pillars from her former home in Europe.

Rodgers' survey covers most media, but it's especially strong in photography. New digital technologies, especially printing techniques, are allowing artists to experiment. Tucsonan Judy Miller photographs wax figures in museums and inserts them into new photographed settings. In "Outtake #14, Lucy 2," Lucille Ball has been relocated into a dusty lakeside cabin.

A young Flagstaff artist, Joe Cornett, has made a pair of gorgeously colored pigment prints, "Private Dining" and "Grubsteak." Both photos picture the rich interior of a restaurant dining room, each adorned with fantasy paintings of a sublime Western landscape. Cornett notes that with rapid development, in the future, we may have "only have representations and idealized landscapes to visit."

Fears about environmental degradation are a strong subtext in the show. Chris Miller, a painter living in the sprawl of Chandler, has stranded a pair of suburban cowboys in chaps amid the tile-topped, garage houses of the New West. Robert Renfrow of Tucson photographed the cheerful colored flags of the surveyor's trade; they wave gaily, and ominously, in an unspoiled landscape of mountain and plain. Tucsonan Gwyneth Scally reprises her MFA installation of last spring, constructing a tent out of the white (faux) fur of the endangered polar bear; inside is a painting of melting icebergs.

A parallel trend, though, among Arizona artists, is a sheer joy in color and pattern. Grant Wiggins of Tempe revives the '60s in a pop-art painting in teal and tan. Photographer Karen M. Strom of Sonoita reconstructs a regional motel as a celebration of curve and line. "Night Sky" by Dominic Miller of Phoenix is a joyous circle of stars, made of pinholes pricked in a sheet of paper inked black. Tucsonan Chase Cotter's "Color Play" is a complicated pattern painting of tiny squares painted in all the colors of the crayon box.

And David Elliott, also of Tucson, has made a major work out of a bowl of Trix. In a digital print named for the cereal, the gigantic Trix balls parade across a 5-foot sweep of photo paper. The crunchy colored spheres are elevated and magnified, and embedded with childhood memories; they're like Proust's madeleines, reconstituted for the age of the TV cartoon.

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