Shock of La Noue

Eclectic, inscrutable mixed-media paintings at TMA dare to be beautiful.

Diligent visitors to the Tucson Museum of Art's sumptuous Terence La Noue show will find assorted Arizona references in his titles.

But that doesn't mean that these brilliantly colored mixed-media paintings on unstretched canvas are recognizable landscapes. Far from it. As the show's title, Layers Concealed and Revealed, suggests, La Noue's works are evocative layerings of abstracted images, rendered in mixtures of media, from conventional paint on canvas to inks on paper, to the more exotic latex, Rhoplex and coffee cloth. These rich, dense artworks immerse themselves in place, but they don't picture it precisely.

"Sedona," for instance, a large 1981 piece, is a blaze of flame red framed by brown. In art alluding to Arizona's Red Rock Country, the red's hardly a surprise, but La Noue has burrowed into the paint, scraping it, combing it and adding shots of blue, green and purple. The tidy brown painted frame signals forthrightly that this is an "art object," not a painted illusion. "Madera Canyon Fire Pool," from 1993 to 1996, is even more inscrutable. Hikers familiar with the beloved canyon won't find its trees and contours in this mixed media on canvas. Divided into two vertical spaces, the work is an abstraction that combines paint fields in orange, black and gray; a black and white etching that maybe, just maybe, suggests the edges of a pond; and a marvelously writhing tangle of tubular shapes, some painted, some just outlined.

Oblique geographical references have long been a trademark of this widely traveled artist. Based in Soho, La Noue has had a home in Patagonia for a dozen years and has plans to build a new studio and move here permanently, says Julie Sasse, the TMA curator of contemporary art who put together the exhibition. His worldwide travels, she says, are "an important part of his work. In the mid-'60s he started traveling and photographing, and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of cultures. These influenced his use of color and symbols."

A quick survey of the 34 works, which fill the top half of the museum, swaying in the breeze an inch or two from the walls, reveals iconography inspired by Guatemalan textiles, by African scarification and pottery designs, by Greek and Turkish frets, and by Islamic ironwork. As with the Arizona pieces, the titles offer clues. There's the up-to-the minute "Tigris," a 1978 work shaped into a semicircle, its rich and comforting earth-brown tones etched by cuneiform triangles evocative of ancient Babylon. "Kashmir," 1979, is lovely in pale pinks and blues, with two half-circles floating at the center. The languid "Kyoto Dreams," 1990-91, is nearly as red as "Sedona," but it has the calming open space of Asian art. The dark "River Styx" from 1986 and the triptych "Castle of the Winds: Atlantis" conjure up mythical places.

Born in 1941 in Indiana, the now-61-year-old La Noue studied art at Ohio Wesleyan University, Sasse writes in the catalog essay. He came of age artistically during the reign first of Abstract Expressionism, then of Minimalism. But the young artist was more influenced by the Expressionism and "Critical Realism" then holding sway in Germany, where he studied on a Fulbright in 1964. The TMA retrospective, which covers four decades of La Noue, has some of the interesting figurative works from this early period. "Soul Death of Birth of Humanity," a 1964 mixed media on masonite, is marked by the black of German Expressionism, and wonderfully loose drawings alluding to human bodies, the landscape and the Christian cross. "Christmas Ghosts," a 1964 watercolor on paper, is a layering of human bodies lying flat. Colored in red, peach and black on white, they could be souls assigned to the assorted circles of the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

Sasse first became aware of La Noue's work in the '70s, when he was coming into his first major success with his experimental amalgams of media. A weaver herself, she was enchanted not only by the way he allowed his paintings to hang loose, like fiber art, in shapes that "got away from the rectangular canvas format," but by his extraordinary mix of materials--his latex, rubber, Rhoplex and tobacco cloth. He even made low-relief reusable molds that he could use to make "markings in a process similar to intaglio printing." These wonderfully complex paintings are part mosaic, part tapestry, part painting, and even--in tiny part--sculpture. Though the TMA show is his first museum exhibition, La Noue's artworks have been commercially successful since then, Sasse says, though their sheer loveliness occasionally got the artist on the wrong side of critics suspicious of beauty.

A subsection of the show displays La Noue's graphic works from the late '80s and early '90s, when he was working with the master printer Ken Tyler. Like the paintings, these works deliberately mix the assorted printmaking media, from aquatint and etching, to woodcut, drypoint, engraving and collage, into a single work.

"Beyond the Shore," one of the best pieces in the show, bridges the graphic works and the paintings. Seventy-eight inches long, it's the size of a painting; aflame in sun-kissed orange and yellow, it has a painting's brilliance, too. But it's a work on paper, a dazzling graphic arts combo of etching, aquatint, carborundum and woodcut. And it has the delicious "marks" printmaking allows. And the best way to look at this piece, like most of the others, is to undertake a kind of visual archaeology, to burrow into the characteristic La Noue strata, traveling deeper and deeper into its delicious shapes and colors and textures.

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