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Best Local Artist/Visual

Gail Marcus-Orlen

READERS' PICK: Nobody's better than Gail Marcus-Orlen at putting contemporary Arizona into a cauldron heated up by the Old Masters and cooking up a surrealistic stew of classically inspired, chile-hot Southwest art. She doesn't flinch from putting a saguaro-studded landscape inside a Renaissance arch, or cats and modern painted fabric on a checkerboarded palazzo floor. Also a long-time art teacher, Marcus-Orlen consistently turns out 20 major paintings a year, creating a body of work that remains among the most liked and most recognizable of any art in Tucson. This year her November show at Etherton Gallery took on some subtle new French flavors, benefiting from a sabbatical stay of the Marcus-Orlen ménage in Paris. And even if her fierce popularity among Tucson art lovers has not brought her riches, one of her paintings went on to a kind of fame of its own this year: The work starred in a TV movie called Silkscreen, masquerading as the work of an artist played by TV hotshot Jennie Garth.


STAFF PICK--TIE: This year we just can't decide. Should it be Nancy Tokar Miller, with her supple, almost transparent, nearly abstract evocations of haunting places around the world? Or should it be James Cook, with his sensuously thick, delicious oils of the visceral sights of Arizona? It'll just have to be both. Their shows were almost back-to-back, Cook's in December, Tokar Miller's in January, giving the art season a mid-winter charge. Cook was at the Davis Dominguez Gallery, in a show called Arizona with sculptor Mark Rossi. The engaging thing about Cook's work is it appeals to lovers of cowboy art and contemporary art alike. His subject matter is often the familiar rocky canyons and distant blue mountains of Western realist art, but it's what he does to this tired mode that gets us so excited: He treats his paint like a thing alive, wrestling it onto his canvases in huge writhing brushstrokes thick with colors of every hue. And this year, he also forthrightly took on the manmade landscape as well, turning out some great paintings of mining tailings sprawled against the land, and smelters glowing in dark factory interiors.

Tokar Miller, down at Etherton Gallery, displayed serene paintings of Spanish arches, Asian gardens, and Mexican beaches. Tokar Miller is a regular world traveler and her deceptively simple oils seem to find the There in every there she visits. Miles apart from Cook in technique, Tokar Miller dilutes her paints into a thin watercolor-like wash, deftly curving her colors onto the canvas to create quiet, almost spiritual works that look like they painted themselves. She's masterful at evoking full sun beaming on water, on a curved window, on a distant tower, and at reducing a full landscape to its quintessential parts. Squint at her picture of a southern sea and the painting will dissolve into marvelous abstraction.

Case History

1998 Winner: David Tineo
1997 Winner: Jim Waid
1995 Winner: Way Station

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