Myth Anthrope

Nasty human dramas take mythic proportions in a Michael Cajero installation.

Michael Cajero has liberated an ancient goddess from the dusty pages of Edith Hamilton's Mythology.

Diana, the goddess of the hunt, springs to violent life in a Cajero installation at Muse, the gallery inside the art center formerly known as the YMCA. Cajero's "Diana" is hardly the dull figure you remember from your high school literature class--or even the tame classical sculpture you dimly recall from art history, the one with her arrows neatly stashed in a quiver on her back, bow daintily held in front. Easily 10 feet tall, this nightmare Diana is a wild figure in blackened papier-mâché and charred, corrugated cardboard. She's twisting violently, her body bent almost in half, her breasts flung every which way. Gyrating in an apparent dance of rage, she's preparing to kill--again--and she reaches for an arrow with a claw-like hand.

A pentangle of baying hounds with bared teeth and contorted bodies--five of the most vicious dogs your most fevered imagination could ever summon up--prance around her, rejoicing in their mistress's prior kill. Diana has landed an arrow in the back of her prey, a hapless woman whose flayed breasts flap open in the air. Now in her death throe, she staggers backward onto a bended knee.

This seething installation, gigantic at 17 feet long, may set a new size record for Cajero, but he's never shied away from putting nightmare visions into art. A memorable show commemorating the Spanish conquest of the Americas, mounted back in the Columbus quincentenary year of 1992, was crawling with slaves and monks and death heads. He shipped a "Death Cart" to an exhibition in Philadelphia in 1993, and even at the cushy Hacienda del Sol hotel in 1999, he exhibited a paper corpse in a coffin. And the hallways leading up to his monstrous "Diana" pulsate with terrifying 3-D visions, wall sculptures of a slain bullfighter lying in shredded newsprint, a haunted "Borracho" (drunk) clinging to his bottle, a rageful Madonna violently swinging her toddler by the hair.

It takes some effort to untangle these agonized humans from Cajero's abstracted masses of burn and color. He makes his emotionally charged works out of materials so distinctive they've become the Cajero signature: shredded paper destined for the dustbin and soft corrugated cardboard. He tears this stuff, tapes it, spatters it with paint, chars it by fire and wraps it over twisted wire. Tattered and tortured, his medium is easily a match for his harrowing message.

Old World mythology is a little outside the usual line of this Tucson artist, who normally works Mexican/Hispanic imagery. But Cajero, who has taught all around town, at Pima, TMA and Muse, has included an elliptical statement that gives hints of what he's about here. He notes that the mythological Diana (known to the Greeks as Artemis) was "on the lookout for fresh game, scent of blood." On the eve of war, it's hard not to see the piece as a jeremiad against the kind of wanton killing we're about to unleash on a terrified world. Still, judging by a poem he's written, he's working a whole range of other woeful motifs into his "Diana." He speaks of a "CEO going under" and "forced Art," and "entry into forbidden." He even slams most of the major credit cards and "any/all passports."

"Diana" nearly overwhelms the small clay sculptures that stand on pedestals and line the walls of the gallery all around her. At first glance they seem a little dull, devoid of her explosive energy, but upon diligent inspection, they turn out to be convulsive Cajeros on a small scale. They're made of clay but the artist has constructed them in layers and strips every bit as disconcerting--and abstracted--as the tatters of the paper sculptures. No more than 18 inches high, these little pieces render great human dramas in miniature. There's a "Drowning Couple" sinking to their deaths; a pair of "Standing Lovers," in which one lover is upside down and in possession of a dissolving face; and "Maniera Figures," in which the lovers are either coupling rapturously or battling desperately.

Cajero has even made a bit of humorous commentary in low relief, in a series of fired clay prison plaques skewering assorted social ills. In "Prison-T.V. Tomb," a gesticulating human is trapped in a cell presided over by a television with rabbit ears. But the sportsman in "Prison Golf" doesn't seem to mind his cage: He's about to putt a ball right into a bucket.

And at least one of the little clay sculptures touches on grand mythological themes. In "Woman Pushing Carriage," the mom with the stroller is a muscular Amazon in modern dress. She engages in combat with the laws of physics, pushing one child and pulling at another one at the same time. With one hand, she holds fast to a toddler determined to break away from her by means of centrifugal force. With the other, she uses her considerable strength to push the massive wheeled vehicle. Come to think of it, the stroller looks a bit like an ancient chariot, and the willful baby climbing upward toward the handle is like a tiny Sisyphus scaling a mountain. It's touching that Cajero has made this mom a hero, and depicted her everyday maternal struggle in monumental terms. She's not a bad model in these dark days. She's no Diana, but at least her heroics are about preserving life, not destroying it.

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