Pixels and Steel

It's Cyber Chica versus cutting-edge furniture in two high-tech art shows

If ancient Incan weavers had computers, what would their textiles have looked like?

Probably a lot like Lucia Grossberger Morales' mixed-media paintings at Contreras Gallery.

Her "Tocapus" paintings are brightly colored geometrics, in traditional Incan mixes of squares and rectangles, with paint liberally brushed on top of digital patterns. And the patterns were created on a computer with software and then printed out on paper.

Grossberger is a Bolivian native who was brought to the U.S. as a small child in the 1950s. In her 20s she discovered that computers could be an art tool—she calls herself Cyber Chica and boasts of being the first Latina digital artist. After working in the computer industry in Silicon Valley for decades, she's transplanted herself to Tucson's dry desert.

Now, devoting herself entirely to art, she's mining an Andean vein. Her exuberant exhibition Andean Circuit at Contreras has a nicely punning title: It's both her journey through traditional Bolivian motifs and crafts and a nod to all that circuitry in her computers that helps power her art.

Some of her pieces are pure digital prints, composed on the computer. One zoological series pictures animals embedded in patterned backgrounds and encased in printed frames. Drawn in an antique indigenous style that conveys the front and back of the animal at the same time (shades of Picasso), the whimsical menagerie includes angular cats, bats and antelopes.

"Gato Morado" (purple cat) is a 12-by-12 digital print manipulated by Photoshop. Patterns of dots and stitches and circles frame an awkward cat whose face is forward, but whose body and legs are sideways.

A charming pink bat stands on its hind legs, immersed in a sea of dots and lines in "Murcielago Bifurcado" (divided bat). Colored blue, purple and teal, the textured patterns—including tiny lines that look like stitches—make the paper appear to be cloth.

Other pieces are digital collages, with computer-printed papers cut and layered atop each other. One of these high-tech collages, "El Cicio," has an image of an ancient statue of a woman giving birth, glued over the face of a skull.

But the "Tocapus" paintings are the most interesting works in this solo show. Mimicking Incan textiles, they're loaded with colorful squares, rectangles and diamonds arranged in patterns that also suggest North American patchwork quilts.

The Incas lived in pre-Conquest days in a narrow arc stretching all the way from Ecuador to southern Chile and Argentina. In an artist's note, Grossberger explains that for the Andean peoples tocapus were "repetitive squares or rectangles ... units of meaning (that) can be isolated, almost like a word in a language. Though the meanings ... have not been deciphered, they are structured around Andean concepts of space and time."

Grossberger doesn't attempt to translate the symbols, but she's arranged them into appealing compositions. The biggest one, "Tocapus 4 x 4," is a grid of 16 canvases, each just 12 inches square, lined up in four rows of four. Each tiny canvas has been broken down further, into checkerboards or diamonds, in color combos from dark sienna and turquoise to gold and red.

"Tocapus 2 x 2" is made up of just four of the little canvases. Grossberger has painted stripes in diagonals spread across the four canvases, creating a glowing diamond in the center.

In all the tocapus works, strips of printed computer paper, printed with minuscule geometric designs, are swabbed with thick strokes of paint. The teensy diamonds and lines occasionally show through the paint. Enamored of computers as she is, Grossberger still has a commendable urge to muck up and paint over—by hand—the orderly digitized world.

Around the corner and down the street on Fourth Avenue, Utilize also injects high-tech into comfortable old forms, in this case literally. If Grossberger brings indigenous art into the digital age, the artists of Utilize abandon the furniture of the past and turn toward ultra-modern contemporary furniture heavy on the metal: a couch in steel and leather, a sideboard table in aluminum, glass, leather and wood.

Curated by Simon Donovan, the chameleon artist who does public art and now performance art, the furniture is light years away from what most of us have in our houses. The forms are sharp-edged, the shapes startling.

Micah Dray's "Table K" looks like a musical note. Colored a brilliant bright blue (it also comes in maroon), it's a curving coffee table in aluminum. Its two flat levels—places to put your teacup or books—stand on legs that are nothing more than sheets of thin aluminum.

Dray's other multi-layer tables, "Table E" in black, and "Table S" in black brown, are equally inventive: jigsaw-cut puzzle pieces brought to giant life.

Donovan collaborated with Ben Olmstead on a dining table called "The Golden Mean." More conventionally shaped than Dray's tables, it's made of steel, wood, acrylic and wax. But it's got its wild side. For the tabletop, wooden slabs have been pieced together like a mosaic, with strips of metal in between, and then "painted" in colorful wax dots. The effect is not as weird as it sounds. The colors the two craftsmen selected are sedate and wood-like: orange-brown and ocher.

Olmstead's "Coffee Table With Chilida" is one of the stranger works. A 5-foot long wrap of steel, it has two flat slabs, one for the tabletop, one for the base, billowing out at the ends. Twists of silvery stainless steel writhe out of holes cut into the top and bottom. It's more art than functioning furniture.

His "Donostia's Reponse" is a harsh couch in steel and leather. The "arms" are sharp flats of steel. (Make sure you don't crash into their keen-edged corners, as I did. Ouch.) The back is a severe tilt of steel. But it's not as uncomfortable as it looks. Brown leather across the seat and the back soften the steel, and the slanty back actually supports your spine, though a small pillow would help.

A few of the artisans deliberately went for beauty. Adan Bañuelos' chair in steel and laminated plywood is a fine-looking sculptural composition (it's on a pedestal so I couldn't try it out for comfort). Donovan's "Lumos" is a charming row of four electrical lights, shining through colored glass, alternating between spattered green and spattered orange.

Like the Art + Design show still up at Etherton, Utilize pairs its furniture with fine art. The offerings include the always excellent line drawings of Tim Mosman, and art glass with attitude by Michael Joplin.

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