The Shock of the Few

TMA's Arizona Biennial offers more compact provocation than before.

This just in: The Arizona Biennial '01 at the Tucson Museum of Art is not nearly as shocking as its predecessor of two years ago.

Sure, this year's statewide exhibition of Arizona artists has plenty to affront the sensibilities of the traditionalist. Io Palmer, one of 20 Tucsonans in the 33-artist show, has covered an entire wall of the museum with delicate real-life white aprons ("Serving Up," 2000). Their frothy cotton billows in every breeze of the air conditioner, and at least one is stained with blood. Sculptor Rebecca Young has made a duo of deflated dead lambs, called, illogically, "Riding Horses." Constructed out of a fake-looking material called hydrocal--a kind of plastic cloth--the lambkins' heads are pierced with handles for kids to hold onto, but their riding days are done. Their limp bodies are piled one atop the other, and their wheels have been ripped out of their broken hooves.

Likewise, Mark Cowardin challenges the notion of what art is by mounting a standard-issue sink atop an oil derrick and naming it a sculpture called "Water Tower 1." Denis Gillingwater makes visitors part of the show by catching them on the cameras of his "Moving Targets," 2001, and projecting their images onto video monitors. Taylor Harnisch lines 15 plant pods up on the wall, each made of latex and decorated with feathers and teeth.

But curator Kathryn Kanjo, curator of ArtPace in San Antonio, a cutting-edge contemporary art space, has also paid attention to photography, printmaking, drawing, ceramics, wood sculpture, printmaking and other familiar categories. And she's picked more paintings than anything else. Naturally, the paintings she's chosen bear witness to the wide range of contemporary practice, all the way from Olivier Mosset's minimalist canvas Ls painted a single flat color to Jerry Jacobson's densely pigmented and multi-layered "Fracture." Challenging and contemporary as these paintings are, they pay respectful homage to the robust tradition of painting on canvas.

Back in the Biennial of '99, Site Santa Fe curator Louis Grachos shocked the city by selecting such works as a pair of underpants studded with thousands of straight pins and giving it the traditional award for work in metal. Determined to expose Arizona to the convention-breaking artists in its own midst, the Grachos show helped legitimize the growing contemporary art movement in Tucson and the rest of the state. He also changed, perhaps forever, the notion of what the Biennial should be. Once upon a time these every-other-year shows were gigantic exhibitions that filled almost the entire museum, and conscientiously catalogued nearly every single art style in the state, from contemporary to cowboy.

Julie Sasse, on the job at TMA for a year now as the museum's first-ever curator of contemporary art, says she tapped Kanjo for judging duties this year in hopes of getting an exhibition with a strong point of view.

"It might not be 'representative' but it's a handsome show," she said last week, as workers put the finishing touches on the exhibition, hanging Janet Bardwell's giant embroidered pillowcase just so. Sasse has heard some grumbling from artists over the show's relatively small size. With just 49 pieces by 33 artists, it's only half as big as the '99 show, which had 70 artists showing 107 works.

Still, the show meets Kanjo's own goal of shaping an exhibition that not only reflects "recent directions in the visual arts" but an "an awareness of art history and practices." The most interesting pieces do both.

Harmony Hammond, a UA art prof who had the one-person Stonewall show at the TMA a half-dozen years ago, is exhibiting a monumental painted triptych as spectacular and as up-to-the-minute as last summer's Los Alamos wildfire next door in New Mexico. "Untitled (Fire)," 2000, brilliantly evokes flames raging across a landscape. Hammond slashed out-of-control gray and charcoal paint across an orange-red background; blue color fields--a lake? a sky?--overlook the fire. Bringing it into the contemporary mixed-media category are found objects. Hammond has draped a latex cape over one corner, and she's even set a wooden flat afire and leaned its charred remains against the canvas. It's hardly a piece of realism, though; its brushstrokes are too untamed for that, but the painting gives a nod to the great landscape tradition of paintings past.

Keith McElroy, another UA prof, won a prize for an artist's book that meshes a medieval subject and up-to-the-minute digital technology. "The Book of Revelation," 2000, is an illustrated rendition of the wild-eyed Bible book that with its beasts and avengers inspired some of the most fanciful art of the Middle Ages. McElroy has a good time rendering hideous gargoyles in green and he's even got a raging hellfire that keys into Hammond's.

The show's photographers are bent on pushing their medium into states of hyper-reality. Maria Harper's self-portrait in three parts (triptychs are popular in this show) is an explicit look at her body parts: her hands, her back and her face. Every pore and mole in her skin are magnified in living color and etched in harsh light in this color coupler print. No longer is a portrait flattering: Its strength is in its brute honesty. Bob Carey's "Sad Smile" is another example, a black-and-white photo of a smiling face writ large and designed to be repulsive. It looms large and round, like a terrifying clown, deeply shadowed and brightly lit.

Works evoking the Southwest are few and far between. Simon Donovan, whose Broadway Snake bridge is at long last under construction downtown, contributed two maquettes. Made for proposed public art projects, the two engaging pieces also work as 3-D paintings. One is a giant X, the other a geometric road shape, but both are shaped out of simulated saguaro skin. Donovan has used ridged wood, painted it green and given it prickles.

Other artists tap into local ethnic traditions. Daniel Martin Diaz is showing one of his terse reworkings of Hispanic Catholic iconography, this one a "Glorious Mysteries" with a head lopped off. Theresa Villegas, formerly Smith, has gone into full-bore Mexican imagery in "Esperando La Voz de Dios," a tidy oil on canvas that suggests a dream. Lisa Takata, an Arizonan of Japanese descent, uses a murky black emulsion print in "Barren Cross #1," to allude to the internment of her forebears during World War II.

The sculptors are among the most inventive. Barbara Jo McLaughlin, director of Dinnerware, plays her wood sculpture "Lean" against type. Instead of using the expected gorgeous hardwoods, she's assembled scrupulously sanded rounds of plywood into an elegant floor piece. Carrie Seid's wall works are the loveliest shapings of silk over bronze I've ever seen--and probably the only shapings of silk over bronze I've ever seen. Like Seid, Al Price plays with light and shadow. He won a prize for his kinetic light and metal sculpture, "Swimming in Front of La Santa Maria," first seen in Tucson two years ago at Joseph Gross Gallery when Sasse was curator there. This extravagantly original affair has a network of crisscrossed wires that move back and forth, undulating like the tides of the sea. And with each rhythmic movement of the wires, their shadows grow and diminish along the gallery wall.

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