After seeing the works on paper in the latest group show being hosted by MARS Gallery, a snide adage pops to mind: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

Imported from Richmond, Virginia's 1708 Gallery, a well-established artists' cooperative, the current show at MARS (Phoenix's own 15-year-old co-op) boasts paintings, drawings and collages by a number of 1708's members. All of them appear to have impeccable academic pedigrees and teaching or museum-affiliated positions.

Perhaps that's why this work is so conservative--and deadly boring. (Then again, it comes from a place that considers Oliver North a folk hero, so . . .)

According to MARS' artistic director, Jerry Gilmore, "The 1708 Gallery Show" is the third in a series of exchange exhibitions MARS has organized. A reciprocal exhibition by MARS members, which includes a large painting executed on a see-through shower curtain, is on display in Virginia while "The 1708 Gallery Show" is in Phoenix. Through show swaps, alternative gallery spaces can effectively expand their audiences beyond the areas in which they generally exhibit. From what I've seen, though, the Virginia co-op probably got the better of this particular deal.

"The work being shown here was made specifically for this show," says Gilmore. "Members of 1708 Gallery were responsible for choosing the work they sent to us, and our members selected work going the other way. The work we sent to them had more of an edge to it.

"Economics was a big factor in putting the exchange together," Gilmore explains, "so we limited the show to unframed media that could be shipped cheaply and easily." Some of the artists shown are actually sculptors or painters on canvas, he says, but cost factors prevented MARS from being able to show the type of work these artists regularly do. All the work in the current show was done on paper.

Giving MARS' Virginia counterpart the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was media restrictions that contributed to the creation of the less-than-sterling pieces plaguing this show.

Whatever the reason, the work selected for exhibition by the 1708 Gallery is, overall, embarrassingly amateurish. Most pieces look as if they are beginners' by-products from some weekend monotype workshop or a beginning-art-class project. For example: Chris Gregson's oil-on-gesso-paper abstractions, Javier Tapia's uninspired watercolors and Anne Johnson's lackluster paper collages.

And all that can be said of Ruth Bolduan's oversize pastel of a benignly feminine sphinx effigy and Sally Bowring's gloppy diptych paintings is this: They are big, and vaguely refer to mythology.

This isn't to say that everything in "The 1708 Gallery Show" was utterly without social or aesthetic merit. The organic, freeform drawings of Diego Sanchez have a certain sinister quality to them that is strangely seductive. Sanchez's charcoal titled "Dime con quien andas" (rough translation: "Tell me who you are hanging around with") features molten figures mysteriously opening up to reveal others: A head sprouts two more; a disjointed mouth begins to devour a female figure whose left leg is erupting from a headless torso, her right leg transformed into a lobster claw, her arm a talon.

Although pretty basic, Rigby Terrell's "1 Centric Space," a black-and-yellow abstraction suggesting a vortex, stood out, as did two big acrylics of old houses by Louis Poole. Poole's work has a certain brushy energy highlighted by large fields of well-chosen, eye-searing color--lively treatment for an otherwise tedious subject.

The most conceptually interesting piece, however, was a simple black-and-white poster by Daniel Calder and Poole. Billing themselves as Existence Research Projects, the artists have created a poster announcing, with Star Trekian reverence, that, for a six-day period, beginning with a July 16 collision, the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and the planet Jupiter will be mixing it up, and the artists "would like to utilize the wondrous nature of this event . . . to learn more about the nature of existence and the current human condition."

Gallerygoers are exhorted to do something special during this astronomical event and report what they do to Existence Research Projects. From the information gathered, the artists plan to compile a list of the activities undertaken and insights explored, which will be made available in book form and on Internet. Talk about interactive participation in an art project.

None of the 1708 Gallery work could compete, however, with that of Luis Jimenez, Rupert Garcia, Patssi Valdez or Gilbert "Maju" Lujan, well-known Latino artists whose prints were hung discreetly in a back room I wandered into. The contrast made the Virginia work appear even dowdier.

MARS began its exchange program in 1991, when it traded work with Berlin, Germany; it has also exchanged shows with Dinnerware, an artists' cooperative in Tucson, and is synchronizing switches with Dublin, Ireland, and Oklahoma City (which, according to Gilmore, is a veritable hotbed of artistic activity).

The idea of exhibition exchanges for alternative spaces is a good one, worthy of encouragement and support. Participating artists have the opportunity to show in places beyond their own backyards, and the public has the chance to see what's developing in nonmainstream art scenes elsewhere.

But in light of the patent lack of quality in this show, MARS needs to consider serious editing of work to be shown via this exchange system.

I'm not talking about censorship; what I'm suggesting is basic quality control.
Often, artists, being intimately connected to what they produce, are the least capable editors of their own output. This is an area in which despotic selectivity, wielded ruthlessly by an independent juror, rather than sanguine, democratic majority rule (the usual approach for most artists' co-ops), would work to the benefit of both participating artists and the public.

In the meantime, while MARS is grappling with that problem, I've got to figure out what I'm going to do during the collision of Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Jupiter.

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