WHEN MICHAEL CAJERO needs art supplies, he drives out to the retail no-man's land of East Broadway. But he doesn't go to a fine arts store. Instead he raids the trash heaps at Pier One Imports, where the cardboard used to pack fragile items from Asia lies abandoned.
"It's very soft cardboard from Taiwan," Cajero says. "They just throw it out. It's specifically for soft ceramic dishes. It's much softer cardboard than what we have in the West," and it's readily permeated by liquid paints.
Big offices are another source for his sculptural materials. From them he gets -- for free -- great tangles of shredded paper.
"I use refuse-type materials," he says. "It doesn't cost anything."
It was back in grad school, at Kent State University, that Cajero first came under the spell of the ephemeral.
He had been doing regular two-dimensional paintings, applying pigment to the flat surfaces of cloth or paper, when he started hearing about process art and arte povera (humble art). These two schools emphasized what Cajero calls the "physicality of materials" and "raw forms," giving equal value to such highly prized media as oils and marble and lowly mass-marketed goods. Cajero started experimenting with junk materials designed not to last -- masking tape and cheap wrapping paper and newsprint. He twisted them into sculptural forms and spattered them with paint.
After picking up a master's in painting, sculpture and art history, Cajero came back home to his native Tucson. Drenched once again in the folkloric imagery of the Hispanic Southwest, he began to see that the cheap materials of arte povera would make a perfect marriage with the icons of Mexican folk art. Mexican artists of necessity have long used cheap, transitory materials for their works -- bread, sugar, clay -- and Cajero mimicked this practice by using paper and tape to make Mexicanesque skeletons and dancers and musicians. Over the years, Cajero, who teaches regularly at Pima College, the Tucson Museum of Art and the UA, has taken these lovable folkloric figures into new territory. In 1992, the 500th-year anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, Cajero filled an entire room in the University of Arizona Museum of Art with giant "light altars" chronicling the disasters of the Spanish Conquest. Giant moving wheels, strung with twinkling lights, were populated by evil monks and abused slave laborers and death heads.
Fiesta, Cajero's new one-person show at Hacienda del Sol resort in the near foothills, is a bit tamer than those highly charged political works. Still, the walls of the tidy gallery arcade reverberate with outrageous figures in papier-mâché and clay stoneware, their rough textured surfaces pushing them toward a lively abstraction. Influenced by music, by the traditions of Old Spain and even African masks, the show is a raucous collection of flamenco dancers and bullfighters, of musicians blowing their hearts out, of wrangling lovers and teasing gargoyles. But there's a dark side to this effusive procession of characters. Cajero has also crafted death's heads, an old woman whose flesh is slouching toward death, wailing mourners and even an occupied coffin.
All of these pieces exude a wild energy: after all, they've been thrown violently together from shredded paper and cardboard, twisted and torn, slapped and splashed, and sometimes even smoked and burned. When Cajero describes making his works, he rarely uses dainty verbs; he tends toward "douse" and "grab" and "smash."
For instance, "Joselito Dead" is a large papier-mâché homage to a real-life matador who died early in the century. At its base is a death head lying in a pile of shredded, blackened newspaper strips. Beyond the corpse is a fence of dark brown cardboard. Above is the head of a contemporary bullfighter, complete with trademark black crescent cap, who peers down at the fallen hero.
"I saw (Joselito's) grave once, and was struck by it," Cajero explains. "This piece is very recent. I mixed the paint, papier-mâché and glue into one mixture, grabbed it with my hands and smashed it on. It's like working with clay. I just throw it on. It gives me total freedom."
"La Indita" is a floor work inspired by a Rodin sculpture of an old woman, a piece that came to the UAMA two years ago in a traveling show. More realistic than most of Cajero's works, which have to be mentally unraveled to be understood, "La Indita" is a twist of torso that emerges from a heap of papier-mâché, much as Rodin's figures often push out of a mass of unworked bronze. To get the scorched look he wanted for this portrait of old age, Cajero says he plunged the figure into a chemical bath, and then charred it overnight through a "slow type of simmering. I smoked it."
"Monk," an ominous hooded figure, draws on an 18th-century Spanish tradition of painting friars, Cajero says. "I was thinking of doing this as a painting but the figure kept emerging. It was shallow for months, but then emerged from the flat plane."
Made of papier-mâché and Taiwanese cardboard, it's been "doused with acrylic and stretched over an aluminum door frame." About 5-feet high, the monk wears a robe made up of shiny orange and brown wrapping paper and ripped corrugated cardboard. The dark hood shields his face, which turns out to be another specter, a death head in haunting yellow and white.
The floor piece "Elegy" is a work of lamentation. Two mourning figures are positioned on either side of a coffin, which leans against the wall. At the right is a man, and at left is La Llorona, the wailing mother of border folklore, both of them ravaged by grief. The fragile papier-mâché, porous and destructible, is a perfect match for their raging sorrow: they are being torn apart, both literally and figuratively.
As Cajero puts it, "I use these transitory ephemeral materials in my figure sculpture to emphasize the impermanence and vulnerability of existence...(It) is consistent with my view of the poignancy of life."