Photo Synthesis

Kenneth Shorr Has A Gimmick, And He's Not Afraid To Use It.

By Margaret Regan

KENNETH SHORR, PHOTOGRAPHER, collagist and painter, has been doing performance art since before it had a name. "I did it before it was called performance art," says the UA art professor. "I used to do voices with pictures back in college, in 1975."

Review Shorr's one-man show this Saturday evening, Slap Happy, closes the second exhibition mounted by Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art. He's performed his "animated skit" three times already during the course of the exhibition, a four-person show called Four Degrees that includes a suite of Shorr's visual works. The monologue varies each evening, he says, and he doesn't like to give away too much in advance.

"It would take away the punch if everyone knew each thing that was coming," he says. "The part of it that works, when it's working, is the discovery of who these characters are."

He will go so far as to explain that he uses his gift for accents in enacting the series of characters, a talent he says even back in high school was useful in getting him out of sundry scrapes. The characters are drawn from topical news stories, from the militarization of the border to conflicts over race; they also arise out of personal experiences.

"These different kinds of characters talk about political things and intimate things," he says. "But it's not a constant political diatribe."

In fact, he adds, the hallmark of his work is a disturbing ambiguity. When he's successful, he wants his audience to remain edgily unsure of whether he himself endorses his character's views.

"At first it's funny, then there's a disquieting sense that you don't know whether a character is supporting these ideas."

Shorr says he's been writing for years, and he's performed his works at La Mama experimental theater in his native New York, as well as in assorted venues in his adopted city, at the Center for Creative Photography and elsewhere. There's not an explicit link between his monologues at HazMat and his visual work, which hangs on the wall alongside a grouping of lecture-hall desks where the audience sits. Still, Shorr says, "There is a relationship."

The visual work, "White Noise," is a suite of found photographs that Shorr has altered with paint and ink. The old black-and-white pictures are from the heyday of nudist camps back in the 1950s, when nudism was promoted as a healthful, outdoorsy way of life. When you peer through Shorr's white paint overlays, you can see glimpses of cheerful nude matrons barbecuing, and naked men and boys cavorting in a lake. But only bits and pieces of their long-ago bonhomie seep through. You have to imaginatively reconstruct their characters, as Shorr does to the different personae in his skits.

The masking, Shorr adds, has political implications.

"With 'white-washing,' you're trying to efface (something)," he says, noting that people masked and effaced can be treated as non-humans, whether they're Latin migrants trying to come north for a better life, or Yugoslav citizens intent on civil rights.

The larger show on the HazMat walls, entitled Four Degrees, also includes work by Tucson photographer Joseph Labate, who builds photographic grids out of numerous small pictures. He lines up pictures of objects both innocent and profane--ballet dancers and guns--and assembles them into sinister checkerboards.

Philadelphia sculptor Catherine J. Lumenello has constructed gilt wall plaques and pedestal shelves that satirize advice given to young girls, of both the ladylike and pop psychology kind.

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," advises one embroidered sampler. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince," proclaims another, more up-to-date.

Finally, painter Nina Max Daly of Boston is showing five paintings in oils and acrylics, inspired by the forms of nature. They're surprisingly lovely and lyrical for work labeled contemporary, all curving lines and circles in such pleasing palettes as gray, pale blue and yellow ochre. The inclusion of the paintings helps reinforce the museum organizers' point that contemporary work is almost infinitely varied.

Director Julia Latané reports that there's been no movement on the museum's hopes to take over the old Thrifty building on Congress Street as a permanent site. The federal government, which has owned the store and several adjoining buildings for over a decade, has not yet followed through on its promise to declare them excess property. The General Services Administration bought the buildings as a site for a new federal courthouse, but abandoned that plan in favor of the Granada Avenue location, where a monumental new federal courthouse is nearing completion.

In the interim, the museum proponents renovated an old warehouse on Toole Avenue into the HazMat Gallery. They've gotten a measure of support from the local government: the city of Tucson has awarded them a grant of $8,000, to be used for swamp cooling and the expenses associated with mounting shows.

Kenneth Shorr presents Slap Happy at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, at HazMat Gallery, 197 E. Toole Ave. The exhibition Four Degrees continues through Saturday, May 8. Gallery hours are 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information, call 624-5019. TW

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