Reflections and Glimpses

The art in 'Arizona Biennial '07' is truly all over the map

One day last year, Paho Mann dismantled his Tempe apartment.

Everything he owned--from plates, file folders and socks to toothpaste, CDs and letters--came out of drawers and cupboards. (Judging from the clothes, and maybe from those flowered dishes, a woman lives there, too.) Mann photographed each and every object in the same thumbprint size, a key equal to a bra, a chili pepper the same dimensions as a book. Then he arranged the tiny pictures into a grid and made a gigantic jet print of the whole kit and kaboodle.

"Everything in My Apartment," 2006, on view at the Arizona Biennial '07 at the Tucson Museum of Art, is at least 6 feet long and 4 feet high. The long, shimmering picture reads like a text about 21st-century consumption. Peering at the miniatures, you can't help but be struck by how many things Americans need to lead a standard middle-class life.

Intellectually rigorous and finely crafted, the piece not only beat out all others in the show for the Contemporary Art Society Award of Excellence; the museum decided to purchase it for its permanent collection.

But that doesn't mean that it's going to look like art to everyone who sees it. Called a "photomosaic" by Mann, "Everything" represents a shift from old-school photography, in which what Mann terms a "singular object" is singled out and given meaning. He's upended that old hierarchy--in his grid, every object has the same value as another--as much as he's ventured off into new media. He uses his computer, not conventional chemicals, to crank out his art.

Right next to Mann's work is a far more traditional piece. "Abby Playing a Game," 2006, is a figurative oil on canvas. In it, Tempe's Derek Wilkinson has skillfully deployed all the time-honored tricks of the oil painter's trade, manipulating color, shadow, light and perspective to create not only an illusion of space, but an approximation of reality. His amber-toned oils are lush and shiny, his draftsmanship impeccable.

His medium may be old, but the subject is contemporary. A young woman plays video games on a living room floor, a big bottle o' whiskey at her side, the flickering screen lighting up her face. And she's no goddess. Dressed in tattered fishnet stockings and a miniskirt, she's so riveted on the game that she's unaware that her cross-legged pose allows her underpants to show through.

These two pieces, the photomosaic and the painting, aptly placed by the front door, could serve as guideposts to this overlarge exhibition. Every two years, TMA signs a guest curator to put together a show that's meant to gauge the state of Arizona's art. Some 700 Arizona artists submitted, and Dianne Perry Vanderlip, curator emerita of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, whittled the entries down to 50.

Vanderlip was free to follow her own tastes, and she selected no cowboy art and hardly any crafts, apart from Tucsonan Su Egen's three fine damask tapestries. The art is otherwise so varied in materials and subject as to elude any sort of unifying principle. Mann and Wilkinson roughly sum up general tendencies.

Mann is your man for Wild New Art in New Materials. In his corner, you'll also find Anne Marie Long's "Bulbknob L," 2007, a tall, golden, handmade felt rope that dangles from the museum ceiling on a wire. It looks like a giant fuzzy microphone with a tail. "Self-Controlled," 2005, by Barbara Bergstrom of Oro Valley, is a 20-foot-long desk, complete with wheeled chair, cubbies and file folders, and a swathe of paper on which Bergstrom has laboriously written in black felt-tip pen. It definitely explores the notion of control, but it's so alluring, it's all museum guards can do to keep weary art viewers from plopping down in the rolling chair and adding their two cents to Bergstrom's text.

If Bergstrom's medium is furniture, Deborah Salac's is black dresses. Gleaned from vintage shops, the dresses are hung by the dozen on hangers in her giant "Mourning Wall," 2005. It's a stark lamentation, though Salac, another Tempe artist, doesn't specify the particular deaths she's grieving. Fausto Fernandez of Phoenix is enough of a traditionalist that he paints in acrylics, and paints deftly, but he brushes his colors over old-fashioned sewing patterns.

Sewing directions, felt ropes and old clothes aside, this show tilts more heavily into Wilkinson's side of the art divide. It abounds in painters and photographers, working both narratively and abstractly. Tucsonan Howard Salmon, recent winner of a Lumie Award from the Tucson Pima Arts Council, turns in a couple of nice Van Gogh-esque self-portraits. But most of the artists using conventional media give them a contemporary spin.

Painter Tina Mion of Winslow charges up her narrative scenes with shots of surrealism. In "Burning Brushes," a young woman sits on a bed in a dingy brown room. But on the sagging mattress, a birthday cake is aflame with burning artists' brushes. Out the window, a clown and a full-sized elephant are on a pier in water. (Vanderlip's selections strike a surprising zoological note: I counted no fewer than three elephants, two monkeys and one sheep in assorted paintings.)

In the photography division, Tucson's Shannon Smith has two pungently colored digitals that narrate a joyous tale of fertility in the desert. (Smith is hugely pregnant in both.) Local artist James Mokler won the Ernie Cabat Award for his luscious "Meyer Avenue," a black and white of a familiar street in Tucson's barrio.

There's plenty of abstraction, too. Scottsdale's solo-named Ludvic celebrates old-fashioned Abstract Expressionism in two lively gestural paintings, "Rhapsody II" and "Rhapsody IV," though he adds rich black asphalt to his bright oils. Mark Pomilio's two large charcoal drawings are filled with geometric shapes, and Cheryl Cotter's cheerful acrylic "Love" blazes with tiny squares in every color under the sun. (Pomilio is from Phoenix, and Cotter from Oro Valley.)

Good old social criticism makes a strong showing. Tucson's Owen Williams casts a gentle critique in "Global Warming," 2006, a lovely painting on metal of a penguin stranded in a tropical garden. This year's big border work, "Exe/Cute," an acrylic on canvas by Tucsonan Paco Velez, denounces skyrocketing militarization and racism by means of a cute bunny surrounded by barbed wire and graffiti. A Minuteman in a swastika helmet takes aim at the cartoon critter.

If you make it all the way to the basement, you'll find Mary Meyer's soothing installation "Presence: Absorption and Reflection," 2005. Winner of the George McCullough Award, it pairs hundreds of cast-aluminum leaf-life shapes on the wall with white ceramics scattered on the floor in piles of sand. Each of the tiny leaf pieces is different, and each is beautifully made.

The meditative work gives weary exhibition-goers a chance to absorb and reflect on what they've just seen. The show can't possibly reflect all that's happening in Arizona art today, but like Meyer's shimmering little leaves, it offers mini-reflections and tiny glimpses, of artists from Mann to Wilkinson, and everything in between.

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