When Canvas Won't Do

Almost 70 artists do their things with metal in TMA's latest stimulating show

Margaret Evangeline shoots first and paints later.

To make "Polychromaculate Series #6," Evangeline aimed a gun at a sheet of aluminum and pulled the trigger. The bullet shot through the metal, leaving a big jagged hole in its wake. Then artist Evangeline picked up her brush, dipped it into vinyl paint in lurid purple and hot pink, and colored the aluminum, following the random tears and jags of the gunshot.

If this seems an unusually violent way to make art, Evangeline's bold methods fit right in with Paint on Metal, the stimulating new show at the Tucson Museum of Art. Evangeline's wounded work is just one of nearly 70 paint-on-metal pieces by as many artists. If her fellow artists don't all shoot their work--though Billy Al Bengston appears to have taken a hammer to the giant red X in his "Mesquiter Western Series"--they do like to break rules. They've abandoned any idea that art should fit into neat categories, that paint should go only on canvas or paper, that sculptures should be left uncolored to gleam metallically in natural silver or bronze.

In fact, just forget about calling them either painters or sculptors. These artists are both. They joyfully mix their media. They slather great strokes of paint on flat sheets of copper and tin and aluminum. They craft three-dimensional metallic sculptures that they drown in crayon bright oils or slick automobile neons.

They use found objects; quite a few are partial to abandoned car parts. They spray-paint screens and wires and farm tools. They make lithographic prints on aluminum instead of paper. They cut out shapes from flat aluminum and then bend and twist the shiny metal so that it soars into a third dimension. And some of them even make paintings that would be conventional except for the little matter of the metal glistening through the paint.

Julie Sasse, TMA's curator of contemporary art, put this show together, drawing in artists from all around the country and a few from abroad. And she's managed to reel in some very big names. Alexander Calder, famous for his mobiles, exhibits a "stabile"--a mobile fixed not to the ceiling but to a stationary object on a pedestal. His playful "Blue Moon Over the Steeple," from 1965, is a kind of skyscape. Its blue crescent moon and yellow circles, planets perhaps, are cut from sheet metal and tethered to yellow-orange wires. This delicate assemblage balances on the tip of the black metal "steeple."

If Calder's piece is undeniably a sculpture that just happens to be painted, Robert Rauschenberg's "Primary Illusion (Urban Bourbon Series)," 1989, goes in the opposite direction. It's a wall painting, in acrylic and enamel, that just happens to be on a flat sheet of aluminum. But the two men agree in the matter of primary colors. In the background, Rauschenberg has made a big abstract gestural painting in white and red and blue; the foreground highlights a bright yellow arch.

A third biggie, Frank Stella, literally takes the middle ground. "The Mat-Maker (D-13, maq.)" is a wall piece, but Stella has cut and bent the painted aluminum so that it curves out into space. Inspired by the characters from Melville's Moby-Dick, Sasse tells us in a catalogue, "The Mat-Maker" alternates between delicate line drawings in black paint, and patches of paint in the cartoon colors of yellow, pink, green and black.

Why use metal at all? With flexible aluminum, Stella could push his painting in a whole new direction and keep it there, transforming it from a flat image into an object in space. And Rauschenberg makes an elegant case for metal's painterly properties. His paint pools vividly on the slick surface of "Primary Illusion"; it can't sink in, as it does on canvas and paper. Instead, it can be manipulated and swirled around in delicious ways.

Why paint on sculpture? With the addition of paint, Calder, for one, moves his work out of the 19th century, with its academic emphasis on orderly unpainted marbles and unadorned bronzes, and pushes it into the Technicolor 20th. Painted metal has connections to mass production, too, to the great industrial age of cars and planes and rockets.

Unruly as the works in this show are, most of them fall into one of the patterns of these three earlier masters: They're either paintings on metal, painted sculptures or something in between. But they dip into all styles, from abstract expressionism to pop art to realism to minimalism.

At the most painterly end of the continuum, Lois Dodd of Maine makes tiny, luscious oils on aluminum. Her simplified landscapes, only 6 by 8 inches, have the same slick textural appeal of Rauschenberg's big abstraction. But Sasse tells us that Dodd uses metal partly for a practical reason: It's light and easy to carry.

The other painter artists use their metals in assorted inventive ways. David T. Kessler of Phoenix provides a case study for the different effects of metal and canvas in "Surface Patterns," a big triptych painting of a pond from 1999. He bookends the central aluminum panel with two expanses of canvas. The image travels across all three panels, but it changes as it goes from canvas to metal, and in the aluminum section glows with radiant reflected light.

Simon Donovan, one of a handful of Tucson artists to get into the show, uses the aluminum at the base of his 2003 painting "Hail Holy Queen" as an extra color. He's scratched out the Latin words of the hymn "Salve Regina," and the silvery letters shine through the turquoise paint.

The uncontestably sculptural works range from "Monumental Head," a huge head from 2003 in painted bronze by Phoenix artist John Tuomisto-Bell, to Joan Miró's cheerful 1971 "Femme et Oiseau (Woman and Bird)," both in painted bronze, to Nancy Graves' flower-like "Pilot," a floor piece from 1982 in bronze with polychrome patina.

But perhaps most interesting are the hybrid pieces that occupy that middle ground, halfway between the wall and the floor, between full-throttle painting and bone fide sculpture.

New Mexico artist Carlotta Boettcher, a native of Cuba, painted plants and a black-and-red checkerboard in "Elegua and Ogun on the 2002," but she's put this painting on the hood of a BMW that curves out from the wall. Sally Elesby of Los Angeles draws with colored wire in "Horizontality With Greens." For this 2002 work, she coated wire with oil paint and glue in pale pink and yellow and green, and twisted the strands into a strangely appealing composition.

As Sasse notes, "Horizontality" is reminiscent of a 3-D musical score stretching out across a page. If it's not quite Evangeline's gunshot, it's a cheerful grace note, from the art of in between.

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