Forward To The Past

Crafts Artist Thomas Mann Plans Some Turn-Of-The-Century Fun.
By Margaret Regan

A B-52 BOMBER is not your usual venue for art, but then Thomas Mann's Oxidation/Burial Project is a little beyond the usual art event. On Sunday, November 17, the Louisiana jewelry artist will "bury" a rough wooden box filled with craft art in the cockpit of a mothballed fighter plane at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

What? you may well ask. And more importantly, why? Well, it seems Mann, a respected crafts artist who regularly shows at Obsidian Gallery in Tucson and elsewhere around the country, last year listened to a radio program detailing far-thinking revelers' plans for New Year's Eve 1999. The toniest night spots around the country, the radio announcer explained, were already filling reservations for the bash of the century, knockout parties that would usher in the millennium. (Never mind that the 21st century doesn't officially begin until 2001. The year 2000 is the one that's making everyone think mistily about that already well-worn bridge to the future.) Mann decided he ought to dream up a project, artier than the parties he was hearing about, that would mark the big occasion.

What he came up with is the Oxidation/Burial Project, in which artwork will be buried in earth, or exposed to the air, or submerged in water, in 20 separate locations around the country, and then excavated in the year 2000. The idea is to see what happens physically to craft objects subjected to the elements, and also what happens commercially. Will they develop interesting colorations or simply rust? Will they be worth more or less?

As Mann explains in a brochure he's written about the enterprise, "I recall always wanting to explore, though my work, the implications of how art ages and why. The fact that 'old' enhances perceived value in things. That we metalsmiths often color our work, producing artificial patinas, in order to give the work the appearance of age. Would burying art produce natural patinas that would enhance or detract from its perceived value?"

Mann's art colleagues were so enthusiastic about the project that he decided each box would include work by a number of people. He's already buried a box filled with craft art in his mother's backyard in Allentown, Pa., installed another on a rooftop in San Francisco, placed two more by Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. All of the locations have both personal associations and environmental implications for the artist. He says a visit to Tucson's Pima Air and Space Museum a half-dozen years ago actually changed the direction of his art, which he characterizes as "techno-romantic," a mix of contemporary technology and older romantic ideas. The museum's planes reminded him of his childhood obsession with model planes and his adolescent propensity to blow them up via gasoline and firecrackers. He started constructing art objects that look like planes or birds or sometimes both.

For instance, the piece he made for the Tucson box, on display at Obsidian until Sunday, is a 3D model of Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch for a bird-like contraption a human could have worn and powered. It's a delicate assemblage of wire and paper, the wings unfurled. And a tiny tear in its tail paper suggests the process of time's wear and tear has already begun.

The other eight artists willing to give up their work to the Tucson box are all Obsidian regulars as well. David Klanderman, who coincidentally is director of the Pima Air and Space Museum, went along with the deterioration theme in his found-object piece that's already aging: It's a small bundle of sticks and stones and fossils, bound together with wire and cloth. Elizabeth Frank, well known in town for her sculptural angels, worked the flight theme in a fine little mixed-media angel whose wings and arms are spread and ready for takeoff. Kit Carson and Michael Corney assayed the big themes of life and death in Day of the Dead works, Carson in a delicate metal skeleton bearing a banner reading "Long Live Art," and Corney in a ceramic cup that's also a death head. Kevin Osborn, best known for large ceramic vases, put a real gun on top of a tiny box lined with bullets. Its backdrop is a black-and-white photo of a man behind a glass shattered by a shot.

Tom Philabaum came up with a beautiful little glass ball that can be read as an exercise in infinity. A black organic design of stems and circles covers the outer surface. A peek-a-boo space of clear glass allows you to see into the interior of the sphere, where the black design is reflected endlessly onto the surface of a piece of red glass. It's like a crystal ball, a view into the future, a fitting metaphor for art that will next be seen in the next century.

Thomas Mann will place the box in the B-52 cockpit at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 17, at the Pima Air and Space Museum, 6000 E. Valencia Road. Admission is free for those coming to the event. For more information call 574-0462. The open box is on view at Obsidian Gallery, St. Philip's Plaza, 4340 N. Campbell Ave. through Saturday, November 16. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Mann will be at the gallery from 6 to 9 Saturday night for the opening reception of the gallery's annual holiday show, which will include some of Mann's jewelry and mirrors. For information call 577-3598. Mann will give a free public slide lecture on his work at 7 p.m. Friday, November 15, in the Performing Arts Building, No. 2, at the Parks and Recreation Randolph Complex, 200 S. Alvernon Way. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, November 16, in the complex's Arts and Crafts Building, No. 3, he will conduct a workshop on surviving in the crafts business. The cost is $38. For information call 791-4063. TW

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