Urban Tales

The childlike, male-focused doodles of Dave Sayre star in MOCA's 'Invisible City'

Dave Sayre teaches little kids at Drachman Elementary Montessori Magnet School downtown, and his new paintings are as childlike as they come.

His sketchy, cartoonlike scribbles of superheroes and spacemen, of racecars and rocket ships, fill the middle gallery of MOCA on the Plaza. Splashed and dribbled on canvas, some of it unstretched, these works are more painted drawings than full-fledged paintings. In fact, what they're most like are the doodles unruly boys have always scrawled in their school notebooks while they're supposed to be doing their arithmetic.

Ironically, though, Sayre's bad-boy drawings are all about the grown-up world of men. Or, more precisely, about the masculine roles boys feel pressured to take on when their voices deepen and their beards kick in. Sayre's art covers every trope from manly muscles to mesmerizing machines, but he doesn't celebrate them. Instead, he turns his cartoonist's eye to the way gender restrictions straightjacket individuality.

"Metropolis" has a primitive Batman skywalking awkwardly across a stretched canvas, minimally painted in pale gray and white. He's trying to be a hero--his cape is floating manfully behind him--but he doesn't seem capable of saving anyone. Likewise, "Major Tom," a fallen spaceman named, no doubt, for the old David Bowie song, lies limply in space, helpless after the loss of his connection to Ground Control. Major Tom's space background is plain and mournful, a thin glaze of tan and ochre. A weeping black band, dripping, frames the whole picture.

These pieces have a simple sadness, lamenting the failure of masculine stereotypes to actually help teach any man or Everyman how to live his life. But another suite of paintings is far more scathing. Their bitter titles tell the tale of men turned cruel, of hotshots stunted by Neanderthal ideas of what men should be: "Mr. Heartless Bastard." "Mr. Someone." "Mr. What Could Have Been." In all of them, nasty-looking naked men with pointy teeth take center stage. Drawn in primitive white-and-black lines, they could have been chalked on the blackboard by the classroom smart alec.

"Mr. Heartless Bastard" is pictured against a silk-screened row of men's heads. He grips a bottle of alcohol in one fist; his penis and testicles dangle freely; behind him, Major Tom's helmet and spaceship float against pale blue. A big slash of red paint seems to cancel him out, banishing him along with all of his male accouterments. The painted word "Man," aimed with a sharp arrow at his head, is full of contempt for this tough hombre and all his works.

"Mr. Someone" is a guy trying to lift weights with all four of his arms, the better to maximize his biceps. He's hyper-male, and in his case, the word "Man" is scrawled in white chalk just above his arrow-like penis. This is one of the more painted of the pieces: Its unstretched canvas is layered in black and royal blue; screaming red letters and numbers deliver the message. Wayward oil-stick scribbles are scrawled all over.

Sayre has a thing about the racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. that I don't really get, not being a fan of fast cars and fierce accidents. Several of the paintings lash out at Earnhardt, with his name and his racecar drawn in strange places. ("Mr. Someone" is subtitled "Dale Jr.") The most extreme insult to Earnhardt is "Go to Hell, Dale Jr." Two helmeted racecar drivers face off against each other on a stretched canvas painted a surprising mint green. A chalky blue racecar hangs between the two heads.

This is a nice suite of eight works, complemented by a whole wall of painted drawings on paper on similar themes. (One takes on the soldier, one of the more dangerous male tropes: The drawing has two crazed killers armed with blazing swords jumping up from behind a black barrier.) According to museum director Anne-Marie Russell, these freewheeling scribble paintings represent a departure for Sayre. Until now, she says, he's been a photorealist, so skilled that he got bored and decided to learn from the id-like drawings of the liberated young artists he meets in his classroom. It's a good experiment, and he should keep going with it.

Sayre's work is part of group show titled Invisible City. All three artists--Sayre, Joe Robles and Bill Mackey--have worked downtown, as artists in MOCA's studio spaces on Toole Avenue. (Robles recently departed for New York.) Though Sayre's work is not about the city, it does riff on urban graffiti, and Mackey, a practicing architect, makes fantasy buildings in elegant collages crafted of recycled paper. (A movie by a fourth artist, the hour-long Hidden in Plain Sight by Mark Street, flickers on one wall, offering up street scenes from cities from Santiago to Chile.)

The prolific Robles is all over the map, urban, pastoral and otherwise, in his paintings and ink drawings. One large untitled diptych is a hyper-close-up of birds perched on tree branches, painted in thick, 3-D oils. His animé-style portraits depict what might be urban hipsters. The closest he comes to a consistent subject, though, are the horizontals and verticals of the city.

One untitled acrylic is a near-abstraction celebrating urban geometry, with a series of horizontal bands of color suggesting the city's luscious layering of buildings. Another painting, a splashy acrylic that's also untitled, is a carnivalesque rendition of city spires and scrapers. The fanciful buildings are painted gold and pink, and black lines crisscrossing the cheerful colors give the work the look of a '60s architectural rendering.

Just one of the paintings specifically lionizes Tucson. "Untitled (Goodbye Tucson)" is an expressionistic evocation of the Hotel Congress--you can even read the words "Hotel Congress" backward on a passage representing the streetside plate-glass window. As thickly and completely painted as Sayre's works are thin and sketchy, this full-scale homage portrays the hotel in its night dress, with yellow lamplight shining in the darkness. Old-fashioned streetlights, the hotel's squat outdoor cement barriers linked by chains and the lobby colors are all conjured up in this old-fashioned painterly work. Drips of paint cascade down the big canvas, standing in for the bustle of the city that once was and could be again.

MOCA, temporarily lodged--until Dec. 31--in a city-owned building just north of the Main Library, is doing its bit to liven up downtown's streets. At night, an old German movie, Walther Ruttman's 1927 Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, plays continuously from dusk until dawn on a gallery wall visible from the sidewalk.