Filler Patronizing The Arts

The Latest Installment At The UA Joseph Gross Gallery Is Definitely Not An Art Show.
By Margaret Regan

PICTURE THIS: YOU'RE a rich person, an art lover, a patron even, and you get the chance to commission a photograph by a respected art photographer. You can pick anything you want as a subject, something near and dear to your heart, or something poignant or universal, and have it translated into art by means of the photographer's characteristic style. Given the infinity of images artists can tackle, what do you choose as a subject? Well, you're only human. You choose yourself.

That's what happened in the aftermath of "Picture This," an unusual auction staged by the UA Art Department last February, the results of which are now on view in a small show in the Joseph Gross Gallery called Picture This Too. The department signed up a group of some two dozen photographers who agreed to make pictures for the highest bidders. The money would go to the art department, mostly to beef up a scholarship fund for Tucsonans who want to study photography at the UA. It was a wild success in financial terms, with art patrons bidding almost uniformly above the maximum and raising more than $45,000 for the department--a blessing indeed in these lean budgetary times. But it's mostly a disappointment in terms of the art, a textbook example of what happens when patrons get the chance to tell artists what to do.

Most of the photographers were well-known locals, among them José Galvez, Linda Fry Poverman, Cy Lehrer, Camille Bonzani and the UA's own Kenneth Shorr, Keith McElroy and former president John Schaefer. But the star photographer in the bunch was William Wegman, who's known around the country for all those bizarre pictures of his Weimaraner dogs dressed up in such things as brocade robes or riding on roller skates.

Image The picture Wegman made for his highest bidder is a picture of that highest bidder, a Chicagoan who's on the department's Art Advisory Board. Wegman knuckled down and gave the man what he wanted, I guess. He is consummately skilled, though, and the color portrait of this man in a suit does not lack Wegman's characteristic puckishness. The subject gamely posed head-on, bald head shining, black glasses gleaming, with a Wegmanesque stuffed toy cow sitting matter-of-factly on his shoulder. He's also wearing a tie that inadvertently signals something about power relationships: The fabric is covered with the pictures of money, piles of coins, folded bills, checks, even the corner of a tax form. The question is: Which man chose the tie?

This man was not the only one of the monied patrons who wanted their own pictures taken. A Tucson couple tapped Galvez, photographer of the barrio, for a black-and-white portrait taken at the Cinco de Mayo celebration at Kennedy Park this year. The odd result shows a soignée white woman, presumably the one who commissioned the picture, standing uneasily among some coolly tough Hispanic celebrants at the South Side park. She has the look of a trendy visitor woefully out of place.

Another family tapped commercial photographer Balfour Walker for a funny black-and-white portrait of them all in bed on a Sunday morning, the three grown kids in jammies companionably reading The New York Times with their parents. Cy Lehrer, who usually does evocative pictures of ancient places, of Holocaust sites, of abandoned farmhouses, photographed a three-member family posed awkwardly in the desert. Judith Golden did her trademark color layering for a double portrait of two donors. Chris Mooney did an Old West picture of another couple in full costume that looks like a glorified version of something out of Old Tucson Studios, complete with costumes and horse and wagon.

Not everybody wanted to see their own selves in art, thank goodness. Wegman kindly took pictures for his second highest bidders, too, maybe because what this couple really wanted were pictures of their dog, Kabuki. The dog-loving photographer made five black-and-white pictures for them. One of them, with Kabuki posed Rin Tin Tin-like in the family's cultivated desert garden, is of the variety that only a dog's owner would love. In the other four, though, Wegman moved off into his own strange dog universe, photographing a shadow world of dog and woman, Kabuki gazing at his shadow, a cropped Kabuki head meditatively staring into space.

Image Schaefer turned in a classic Southwest still life for another couple. Camille Bonzani went creatively kaleidoscopic for Arthur E. Keating, taking multiple pictures of the old downtown railroad station Keating wants to transform into the city's gateway, and gluing them over architect's renderings of a downtown plan. The guy who posed for Wegman also won the bid on Shorr, but he seems to have given Shorr freer reign. The result is a fine moody piece, a grainy view of an ambiguously gendered figure lying on rocks.

What it all goes to show is that a "collaboration" between patron and artist--that's how the organizers billed this project--can work once in a while, but most of the time not at all. There's an uneasiness about many of the pictures, as though the artists found it difficult to do their best work within the dictates of the donors' wants. The commissioning of art is no new thing, certainly, and some of the great works of art history were portraits painted more or less to order. Picture the "Mona Lisa."

But art has an uneasy relationship to money. The unfortunate destiny of many successful artists is to have their works decorate the houses of the rich. Artists in Tucson get tapped ad nauseam to pony up their works for assorted worthy causes, but the patrons get the art, the cause gets the money, and the artist gets, well, the satisfaction. The artists in Picture This were good sports to donate their services, the donors good sports to let their new pictures hang in public, vulnerable to criticism. But let's not call it an art show: Call it, rather, an upscale gallery of family portraits.

Picture This Too continues through September 27 in the small gallery of the Joseph Gross Gallery, University of Arizona. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information call 621-7567. TW

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