New Neighbors

As Obsidian Gallery adjusts to different digs, Conrad Wilde kicks off season No. 7

At the far north end of the Historic Train Depot downtown, right near the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, a small ceramic figure is traveling by unusual means.

He's flying.

With his arms stretched out, and his body horizontal, this modest superhero is sailing through the air, Superman-style. Unlike the comic-book hero, though, this guy isn't flying over the buildings of Metropolis. He's gliding over a Tucson landscape of prickly pear.

"Flying Over Cactus," a ceramic and mixed-media sculpture by Wesley Anderegg of California, is a new piece of art in a new gallery downtown. Like the little clay guy, Obsidian Gallery has traveled across the city, pulling up stakes from its longtime location in St. Philip's Plaza and settling downtown in the old train station.

Anderegg's flyboy makes a happy metaphor for the transition: The guy looks a little nervous, but his cheerful polka-dotted shirt suggests optimism.

"We're happy we're here," says gallery owner Monica Prillaman. "Everyone has been so welcoming."

Prillaman and son James bought Obsidian, the respected fine-crafts gallery, from Elouise Rusk almost four years ago. While continuing to exhibit the gallery's mainstay offerings of ceramics, handcrafted jewelry, glass art and metal art, the Prillamans created a new emphasis on painting, adding a second gallery room at St. Philip's.

Even so, the location wasn't ideal. When Philabaum Glass closed its St. Philip's space to concentrate on its downtown location, Obsidian was the only contemporary gallery left in the plaza.

"My son James wanted to move downtown," Prillaman says. "He thought we'd be better off."

Downtown is hopping with new restaurants, and it's added a few new galleries in recent times, including Daniel Martin Diaz's Sacred Machine on Congress Street, and James Schaub's Atlas Fine Art Services on Sixth Avenue. The Prillamans wanted to join the lively mix, reining in the crowds that wander the streets on the First Saturday art walks and during the thrice-yearly multiple-gallery openings sponsored by the Central Tucson Gallery Association.

The new Obsidian, located at the opposite end of the depot from Maynards Market and Kitchen, has the charming features of the historic restored station. Its arched windows and doors overlook a overlooking a patio and the railroad tracks to the north. A vintage sign announces "Tucson, Arizona" to passing trains, and on the patio, a Dan Bates bronze sculpture of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is a reminder of the past.

But the Prillamans have given their 2,200 square feet a clean, modern look. They painted the ceiling ductwork matte black, and the walls white and stone gray; they've bleached the concrete floors gray-white. And the opening show, debuting last Saturday night during the CTGA Big Picture receptions, offers a quirky, contemporary take on the age-old art of clay.

The six ceramicists play around with tropes from cartoons to Japanese cinema to Mayan myths, and strenuously mix their media. Marina Kuchinski of Illinois pairs a clay dog's head with a real-life electric fan, the better to make the doggie's fake fur blow in the breeze.

Merry ArtToones, from Tucson, another of the show's five artists new to the gallery, has an extravagantly creative mind, so much so that her "Do Not Play on the Turf" features a bulging brain, all gray and ganglionic. It oozes out of a giant ceramic head placed in the middle of a checkerboard lawn of plastic grass. All around the perimeter of this contested landscape are small figures colored bronze: classical nudes, a Cheshire cat, and big hands everywhere—clinging, reaching, grasping.

Max Lehman of Santa Fe relies on traditional earthenware and glazes, but he conflates cultures. His brightly colored cartoon-like figures rework indigenous myths of Latin America, Prillaman says—"Best Friends Forever (BFF)" features a rabbit and a carrot—but their crayon colors and simple figures also suggest Japanese animé.

Jill Marleah Bell of Brooklyn, N.Y., turns out oddly alluring humans, lovable clay creatures who seem to be in difficult straits. Her "How They Keep Track of Us" is a pair of small nudes, two little fellows with sweet faces, bald heads and round bellies. They're like babies, except for the little matter of their adult-size penises, which are lashed together—painlessly, apparently—with a golden cord.

Gallery regular Anderegg sometimes dips into politically charged work. "The Capitalist" has a tiny painting of Karl Marx affixed to the back of the clay components. But he also contributed several desert pieces in honor of Obsidian's new location. In addition to "Flying Over Cactus," he's made a clay man frolicking on solid ground among the prickly pears, using a net to catch a prize: an elusive butterfly.

On the other side of the tracks, Conrad Wilde Gallery celebrates the opening of its seventh season exhibiting contemporary art downtown, first on Fourth Avenue, and now at Sixth and Sixth. As always, this contemporary gallery is exhibiting luminous, beautifully crafted work.

Sheer Color showcases gorgeously pigmented abstractions by four artists. The works are in a variety of media, but they're related by their use of cloth and color.

Joanne Mattera of New York City paints in encaustic, a lush, waxy medium that's long been a focus of the gallery, in part because director Miles Conrad is an accomplished encaustic artist himself. Mattera's nine panels, each just a foot square, are arranged in a glorious grid on one wall. Each emphasizes a single glowing color—cerulean, orange, red-rust—but other hues bleed through the painted layers. The textures emulate the surface variations in a length of watered silk.

If Mattera tries to evoke cloth with paint, Tucsonan Carrie Seid does the opposite, conjuring up paint via shimmering colored silks. Seid stretches her silk over aluminum squares; underneath, bars of metal push against the translucent fabric, creating painterly patterns in lines and arcs.

Eun-Kyung Suh, a Midwesterner born to Korean-immigrant parents, makes use of traditional Korean pojagi quilting. For her installation "Blue," she's sewn patches of silk together, shaping the cloth into 15 small boxes that hang on the wall. Each of the rectangular boxes has a peephole, giving a view inside to black-and-white photos printed on cloth.

The pictures appear to be family portraits, of ancestors in traditional dress and contemporaries in modern clothing, but we can view them only through the traditional pojagi framework. This is a clever undertaking, a smart investigation into self and identity through the lens of traditional techniques. But these preoccupations are mixed with pleasure: It's impossible to look at Suh's iridescent silks, resplendent in every blue from denim to royal purple to midnight blue, without experiencing seriously blissed-out joy.

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