Wooden Wonders

William Holzman's Fanciful Folk Art Enlivens Tohono Chul Park.

By Margaret Regan

SUPPOSE YOU HAD to evaluate "Alligator Chair." This armchair, really a folksy throne in wood, is a cheerful alligator green painted in dapples and stripes. An alligator head in profile juts up at the top, its darting red tongue thrusting out sideways. Two more alligator heads, their grinning white teeth set on moveable jaws, are positioned on the arms, just where your hands would go. And be careful: They bite.

This chair is in a gallery, all right, Tohono Chul Park Exhibit Hall, to be precise, glowing in an art spotlight. It's surrounded by other pieces of fantastic whimsy, all seriously displayed, along the lines of "Angel and Devil Lamp" (a floor lamp with an angel at the top of the pole, gray devil below, painted orange flames licking the base) and the whirligig "Woman Chasing Man with Liquor Bottle" (twirl the propeller made of flat tin liquor bottles and you can make the angry painted wife chase the boozing husband).

Review But is it art?

Its maker, William Holzman, doesn't think so.

"I don't know why they praise this stuff," Holzman says in a 1992 Nicholas T. Spark video that runs with the show. Holzman, age 89 five years ago when the movie was made, speaks in a cantankerous tone that you just know is a cover for an agreeable nature. "It was crummy stuff...Like measles. I contaminated the whole area with crummy stuff."

Many would beg to differ with his terminology. Contaminate, the dictionary says, means to make impure or corrupt. Impure may be a little bit on target, because Holzman's not working with seriously pure art materials. These things are garage productions crafted out of regular old house paint, ordinary shop wood, strips of roughly cut tin. But corrupt is hardly the right word for Holzman's day-glo cornucopia of fanciful chairs, charismatic lamps and unruly whirligigs, his wild universe of mermaids and snakes and princesses. Delightful is more like it, and so is colorful, inventive and--let's take the plunge--artistic.

The 50 charming works in the show, gleaned mostly from Holzman's eager collectors around town, are just a small portion of the 2,000 pieces curator Vicki Donkersley estimates Holzman has made since he got started in 1977 at age 74. Born in Wisconsin in 1903, he farmed up until his 50s, when his wife's asthma forced a move to Arizona. In Tucson, he became a jack-of-all-trades, working in groceries, in construction, in sales. He explains in the video that his twilight career as a folk artist only got underway when the fish weren't biting one day. He and his second wife (the first had died) decided to while away the fishless hours seeing if they could make some things to sell at the swap meet.

Sell they did, so much so that Holzman eventually was able to give up lugging everything down to the market. Instead, he could hold court for his many buyers in his studio garage. Freed of the size limitations dictated by his car, Holzman's pieces grew to impressive dimensions, like the truly amazing 6-foot "Tiger Striped Horse Bench." This is a typically preposterous concoction, with tiger stripes on the long seat, horse heads for arms.

The works generally fall into one of several categories: Furniture that's more or less functional (wolf chairs, dinosaur benches, cactus lamps); whirligigs (figures that move if you push the attached propeller, like the angry wife or a boisterous Santa); toys (doll house, farmhouse). Only a couple of things, like the "Bridal Couple Kissing," would pass as bona fide nonfunctional sculptures that simply sit still. The red, white and blue "Statue of Liberty Lamp," all stars and stripes and a big red grin, has more to do with sheer colorful exuberance than with any serious attempt to light a room.

The titles are the most understated thing about these imaginative creations. Holzman usually combines images painted on wood with three-dimensional wood cut-outs. He's definitely got the decorative impulse, merrily applying splatter paintings and extraneous circles and stripes in between the more representational pictures, doing outrageous color combinations of brilliant lime and white and black and orange. The flora and fauna and even the folklore of his adopted Arizona home are a big theme.

The cowboys and Indians of the Wild West get the usual chair treatment, their grinning wooden heads sticking up out of the back of the chair, their legs multiplying to four. "Chair with Snake and Prickly Pear" goes those one further--it has a Medusa's head of snakes exploding out of the top, two toothy black snake heads on the arms, and even "wings" at the shoulders made of cut-out snakes.

These pieces are mostly about fun and color and sheer folly, but it must be said that Holzman doesn't shy away from the big themes. Consider, after all, that he takes a stab at the man-woman thing, at mythology and folklore, at heaven and hell. Why, one can even detect a Holzman Dark Period, particularly in a group of whirligigs distinguished by some powerful-looking teeth. "Woman with Rat in Her Hair" has no hope of getting the pesky painted rat out, and the propeller she's facing is made up of a circle of painted tin rats. Naturally, she's shrieking, pulling her big red lips back to show those fearsome choppers.

Holzman, now 94 and ailing, stopped crafting his works about six months ago. His curator says that despite his prodigious and inspired output he still thinks of himself as a farmer. Nevertheless, when he talks in the video about how he goes about creating his art, he sounds just like any other serious artist struggling to identify his muse.

"I'm kind of a dreamer," he says. "I don't know what the next one's going to be...You just do what comes to your head. You just do it." TW

William Holzman's Fantastic Folk Art continues through Tuesday, June 8, in the Exhibit Hall at Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. A companion exhibition, Fantasies in Fabric: Art Dolls, by Terry Enfield and Jo Ann Pinto, continues through June 9. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Suggested donation is $2. For more information call 742-6455.

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