On Eagle’s Wings

Solid “Arizona Biennial” at TMA explores tree die-offs, violence and pure beauty

A pair of eagle's wings— rendered in bulletproof Kevlar—preside over the entrance to "Arizona Biennial 2015."

The wings are golden and glorious, spreading outward nearly eight feet across the gallery wall, seeming to celebrate the Arizona artists whose work is gathered within the Tucson Museum of Art.

But there's the little matter of the Kevlar. The bullet-proofing issues a warning that nature, and the iconic golden eagle itself, are under threat. And for this particular eagle, it's already too late. Its wings, delicately crafted by Jeffrey J. DaCosta of Tucson, are disembodied. The bird is missing in action.

Great Exchange 2-Golden Eagle Wings is an apt introduction to a Biennial that traffics heavily in art about environmental degradation.

Normally, the every-other-year juried exhibition of Arizona artists is more hodge-podge than themed, a wild assemblage of art about everything. This year is different.

Guest juror Irene Hofmann, director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe, a respected outpost for contemporary art, didn't set out to curate a themed show. Yet when she plowed through the 1,500 submissions from 500 artists, she discovered "several distinct themes that occupy and concern artists throughout the state."

Whittling down the exhibition to 50 pieces by 33 artists, she created a coherent exhibition divided into four categories: nature, reclamation of cast-off objects, violence and the "seduction" of pure painting. Tucson makes a proud showing in this streamlined exhibition. In total, seventeen are from the Old Pueblo, while six hail from Phoenix, four from Tempe, and two each from Scottsdale, Jerome and Flagstaff.

The artists' media range all over the artistic map, sometimes literally, as in the case of Tucsonan Elizabeth Burden, whose "Cartographies: The Fallen 2" appears in the Violence section. It's a digital map of the United States documenting the locations of the deaths of minorities at the hands of the police.

There are up-to-the minute video installations. Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars' "Animal Land," a ghostly projection of animals galloping across the white gallery wall in the Nature room) and fine oils on linen (Mike Stack's radiant untitled abstraction of luminous horizontal stripes suggesting a landscape is appropriately in Seduction).

For the Reclamation division, Katherine Monaghan made a couple of gorgeous abstract prints by collecting rusty old washers and pressing them onto wet paper, and Patricia Sannit created a 36-foot-long clay river that meanders across the floor ("Follow the River").

Ellen McMahon and Beth Weinstein, both UA profs, made "Prone to Collapse," a cardboard forest glen. Visitors can climb inside and lie down to watch scientists' videos of dying western trees on the cardboard sky. The artists' note that the Southwest is suffering a tree "die-off"—we've lost 20 percent of our conifer forest in the last 10 years.

Back upstairs in the Nature gallery, where DaCosta's eagle's wings reign, Jerome artist Alan Bur Johnson ("Murmuration") worked with much smaller varieties. He took hundreds of delicate photo transparencies of tiny wings and put them inside metal rings. Then he attached the rings loosely to the wall, arranged like a swarm of bees. The wings flutter in the air at the slightest breeze.

In beautifully colored archival print digital photos, longtime Tucson photographer Robert Renfrow dives into the issue of endangered nature even more explicitly than DaCosta does.

In "Landscape Band-Aid #3," Renfrow photographed dying cacti at the edge of a brand-new housing development on Tucson's far reaches. But he's done what he can to help, photographically speaking: he's planted his own color pix of healthy barrel cacti, and shot them gleaming alongside the near-dead brown ones. In "#2," he's patched up a saguaro withering outside a gated community with a photo of a fine green patch of healthy saguaro skin.

Likewise, Phoenix artist Carolyn Lavender adds the severed taxidermy heads of wild animals to "Preservation Woods," a giant graphite drawing of a lush forest. (The Phoenix artist grew up in a leafy suburb of Washington state.) In the foreground, an odd collection of mismatched animals – an Australian koala, an Arizona javelina—stand and pose, nearly hidden among the trees, as they await, perhaps, their turn under the taxidermist's knife, or the developer's bulldozer.

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