B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
EVERY YEAR THE University of Arizona Art Department spews out into the community a dozen or more artists with freshly minted master's degrees. Some take off for teaching jobs in parts yonder, some inevitably make the journey to the art mecca of New York, and some stick around to make a life in southern Arizona.
A couple of current shows at the university take stock of what happens to those who stay. The reopened Union Gallery in the Student Union (see Collage for an interview with the new director) is offering up Tucson Views Alumni Invitational, exhibiting some 23 works in paint and glass and pastel and car springs by six UA master's grads from the '70s and early '80s. Over at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, another MFA grad, Catherine Nash, has constructed two room-size installations called A Spiral to Within, in paper and pine and sand.
Not all trained artists, obviously, can make a full-time career in art in the Old Pueblo, where there's lots of scene but very little market. Of the seven artists in these shows, painter DeAnn Melton is the exception who has managed to keep going as a "pure" artist. Two are teachers, painter Albert Kogel at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, and painter/printmaker Phillip E. Lichtenhan at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson. Nash, a premiere Old Pueblo paper artist, also occasionally teaches.
Glass artist Tom Philabaum has been running a successful glass studio and gallery in town some 20 years, 10 years in its present location on South Sixth. Painter Charles Piqué, a former Rancho Linda Vista resident, shows sporadically and earns a living running a contracting business.
So with all these other commitments, what kind of art are these artists managing to produce? Nash certainly is not doing anything run-of-the-mill. Her two rooms at the UAMA are a re-imagination of natural shelters, crafted with unconventional materials. The walls are made of hand-made paper. Fired ceramic seashells are distributed altar-like along the sand covering the ground. Real pine branches give off a soft woodsy scent. The sounds of flowing water, wind and birdsong gently issue from a soundtrack.
Nash aims to make her art a healing respite from the crass cacophony of modern life, and it is soothing to set a spell inside the cave-like space of the one room, the forest glen of the other. Ironically, though, in a contest between her art and nature, nature wins hands down, at least this time of year. Nash's blue-and-beige installation can't begin to compete with the soft sun and cerulean skies of the desert autumn that envelops you the minute you step outside the museum.
In the Union Gallery, the closest thing to outrageous is Gilliand's odd dog sculpture in car parts and can openers, but the UA alumns show they can hold their own on the contemporary scene, especially in painting.
Melton exhibits four oils on canvas: one flower still life, two portraits from her long-term series on Tucson artists, and a classically oriented work along the lines of those she debuted last summer at Davis Dominguez Gallery, where she shows regularly. Melton is fine painter who paints thickly and exuberantly within a carefully controlled palette. But her paint can't always overcome her subject matter. The flowers of "Athena" are so conventional that it's virtually impossible to see them with the fresh eyes her paintings skills warrant.
More interesting is "Noah." Here Melton takes the novel step of working biblical material in an heroic mode and then painting the whole with all the verve of an abstract expressionist. The wild strokes of pink and brown paint surrounding her noble Noah and his ostrich have little to do with the flood story, and everything to do with color and texture.
Another Davis Dominguez painter, Kogel shows a trio of thickly painted, near-abstract paintings in glowing yellows and ochres enlivened by collaged bits of colored fabric glued to the canvas surface. Piqué reprises a duo of the exuberant, wildly colored Mardi Gras oils on canvas he showed last spring at the now defunct New Doors of the Arts Gallery.
Lichtenhan, still another artist on the Davis Dominguez roster (his prints are in a three-person show at that gallery right now), delights in fluid figure drawings in pastels. His four quick sketches in the show cover a good bit of art-historical terrain. One of a woman's back looks like a lovely Degas; another breaks down into cubism; and still another has the bruised, meat-like quality of a Francis Bacon figure. Gilliland draws fluently too, though like Melton, she tackles subject matter that can be oddly conventional: besides her wire dog, she shows three fine, inventively composed drawings of dogs.
Probably the best known of the alumni at the Union show is glass artist Philabaum. He exhibits a pair of his familiar vase-like glassworks, those swirly decorative amalgams of glass both clear and colored so prized by local interior decorators. Philabaum is a curious case. He's a consummately skilled glass worker who's a passionate proselytizer for his medium. He's able to make astoundingly seamless creations, wielding his difficult, dangerous material as effortlessly as if it were plaster-of-paris. But sometimes, when he turns his back on decoration and aims for loftier fine arts works, he seems to lose his sense of aesthetics.
"Serpentina Architectona" is a kind of sand-drip castle, but at least it glows in purples and pinks. "Nuevo Cohete," though, is downright ungainly. An egglike column in dull gold opaque glass, it's a heavy-looking sculpture with none of the grace of spun glass. Instead, it seems weighted down by feet of clay.
Tucson Views Alumni Invitational continues through November 22 at the Union Gallery, on the first floor of the UA Student Union Memorial Building. A reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday, November 9. Gallery hours are officially 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but call before you go because it's staffed by student volunteers; closed Veterans' Day, November 13. The phone is 621-5123. Catherine Nash's A Spiral to Within continues through November 22 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed November 13. For more information call 621-7567.
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