Prickly Matters

Simon Donovan rises to the occasion in his new installation

Simon Donovan gives you a heads-up on the title of his new show.

It's Prick.

"I hate that word," you say.

"Oh, you're so Irish," he replies.

You counter that Terry Etherton, who runs the Temple Gallery, is never going to allow such a naughty name. After all, the primary audience for the gallery's exhibitions is the middle-aged, middle-of-the road patrons of Arizona Theatre Company plays.

You're wrong, though. Etherton OKs it. Still, his staff has a little trouble with the placement of the punctuation marks. They consider, and reject, Simon Donovan: Prick. Then, Simon Donovan's Prick. Finally, they soften the blow with a couple of extra words. When the postcard announcement lands in the mailbox, it bears the title, Simon Donovan: Prick, An Installation.

The collage on the postcard hints at some of its harder themes. A slice of saguaro cactus, loaded with lethal-looking prickers, is pictured up-close and personal. Then there's a long, pink, fleshy body part jabbing itself against one of the saguaro stickers. Mercifully, the body part is a finger. In between the digit and the saguaro is a devilish-looking Donovan, gleefully grinning upward at the blood dripping from the finger wound.

Hoo boy, you think--what you've got here are your basic sex and suffering, Catholic-style, all wrapped up for the holidays in a desert dressing and double-entendre wordplay. Just the thing for theatergoers out for a festive evening of The Pirates of Penzance.

But you're surprised when you finally get to the gallery. There's no blood anywhere, nor any other body fluids. Prick is a lot of things--audacious, entertaining, maybe even a little bit silly--but it's also beautiful.

Donovan has painted the gallery walls a glistening gold, and in the middle of the room, he's set up a glowing cactus forest. No fewer than 15 life-sized saguaros stand convivially together, like so many "Dancers at a Gathering," to borrow a phrase from choreographer Jerome Robbins. Not a one of them is painted the usual saguaro green. Instead, they shimmer in silver, rose, gold, white and black, with under-layers of pearl gray and pale lavender delicately seeping through.

Corresponding to the lovely cactus garden on the floor are eight shaped paintings on the walls. These mixed-media works are like saguaros unbound, their corrugated surfaces stretched out and unfurled across the walls. If the sculptural saguaros are in magical realist colors, these painterly ones are Nature's own green. They have the same ridges as saguaros in the flesh, and Donovan has deployed then as a boldly graphic design element, their 3-D stripes rushing vertically upward.

Their shapes evoke geometry class, making a nice contrast to the organic--well, phallic--sculptures on the floor. (The saguaro sculptures are all armless, the better to conform to the show's title.) Scattered across the golden walls are isosceles triangles and trapezoids in saguaro green, and circle segments lopped off by vectors. There's even a perfect cube, evoked by an optical illusion of black against a green square.

Prick, you decide, is partly a continuation of what Donovan has been doing for some time. He's adept at taking the natural patterns he finds in the desert and abstracting them into formal works of art. His Snake Bridge, for instance, blows up the diamond shapes of the rattlesnake's skin, and turns them into large designs in beige and brown, stretching transparently all the way across Broadway Boulevard. Elsewhere, he's used imagery from Hohokam pottery writ large, and last year, in a precursor to Prick, his Pony del Pueblo was a horse sporting a corrugated saguaro skin.

Donovan bypasses the cliché potential of Southwest imagery by streamlining it, aspiring to the kind of modernism embodied in the sculpture of a Louise Nevelson or the shaped canvases of an Ellsworth Kelly, as he writes in an artist's note. But he's going for something else here, too, something exquisitely specific to this place: saguaro as metaphor.

Saguaros have all kinds of meanings here in the desert. They're a sentinel species, for one, whose level of health tells us how well our environment is doing. We can tell how bad the drought is by how shriveled up they are, and we can tell how much we're despoiling our own land when we allow developers to dig them up and "transplant" them to the edges of golf courses, there to die an ignominious death next to the bright-green intruder grass.

Donovan's saguaros can't die--fake ones may be all that we have after a while--but like real ones, his are fierce. He's affixed thousands and thousands of sharp points to his painted saguaros, their dangerous prickers sticking out at all angles from all that lovely paint. (The Temple's managers wondered whether they might require some kind of safety barrier.)

The prickers are part of the saguaro's deceptive beauty. Any Sunday painter can tell you how a trick of the desert light makes the prickers glow like an aura--or halo--around a saguaro's edges. The uninitiated might even think these cacti are soft and fuzzy. But as desert dwellers know, their sharp prickers can pierce a human's skin and cause incredible pain. Saguaros use their prickers to ward off attacks and preserve what's inside. Kinda like people.

The coupling of beauty and pain is where the Catholic stuff comes in. Donovan writes in his statement that as a child, he slept beneath a painting of a bloody Jesus, his head encircled by his crown of thorns. And the painstaking process of inserting the prickers in his art saguaros even evokes the recitation of the rosary. The "repetitive act of placing 'thorns' is a physical mantra, not unlike the rosary of my youth," he writes. "These pieces should be seen as the fruits of that process."

Donovan tells you in advance that he won't be upset if you don't like Prick.

"You can always say that it falls short," he says.

That won't be necessary. This show is more complex than its title. It delves into form, design, color, and penetrates into interesting metaphors about religion, the environment and human interactions. You might say it rises to the occasion.

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