FIN AND YANG

"Fish Out Of Water," Mesa Southwest Museum's summer art show, is about the closest I've gotten to baiting a hook in 30 years. That's when my father gave up trying to convert me to the church of fishing--and also gave up dragging me, kicking and screaming, on family fishing expeditions to June Lake, his version of an annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I suppose it's that inherently spiritual, religious and philosophical quality about the act of fishing, a quality not lost on my father, that is really the subject matter of the museum's exhibition. According to the statement of guest curator Sheila Kollasch, this modest but generally effective show revolves around art and literature that "takes a look at water quality in the Western United States through the sport of fishing." But the show goes much deeper than that, exploring the fishing experience, which, according to the artists and writers in this show, not to mention my father, is akin to the visions of the divine had by medieval saints.

Man's fascination with fish and fishing can be traced historically through every major world culture; the irresistible lure of the piscine probably began the very moment primitive fishermen in southwestern France's Dordogne Valley rigged up the first fishhook from plant fibers in 25,000 B.C. Fish have long inspired both the visual and literary arts, and since ancient times, celestial Pisces has been lazily swimming across the heavens as the 12th astrological sign of the Zodiac. Fish were cast in the role of mythological deities early on and have been incorporated into a number of religious pantheons. In ancient Greece, Tritons, or mermen (half men, half fish), and Nereids, frolicking sea nymphs akin to mermaids, were the attendants of the powerful Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, and his wife, Amphitrite. In ancient Hinduism, Matsya, the first avatar or man-fish incarnation of the great god Vishnu, is represented by a man's upper torso ending in a graceful fish tail.

In Christian tradition, the fish was a very early symbol of baptism and the Christian belief in resurrection after death; believers were referred to as pisciculi, little fishes. When Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius began systematically turning Christians into lion fodder in 177 A.D., the fish became the underground symbol used to identify secret practitioners of the upstart religion, which opposed emperor worship. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, conveniently formed the initials of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ of God the Son, Savior."

Fish frequently were design elements on seals and lamps found on sarcophagi and in Roman catacombs, where early Christians hid their dead from the Romans; they also figured prominently as motifs in Far Eastern cultures.

To this day, on the yearly celebration of Boys' Day, the Japanese fill the skies with giant kites in the shape of carp, which have long been a symbol of health and fearlessness in Japan because of the fishes' penchant for swimming upstream. These carp kites, called koinobori, are raised on poles and are believed to carry aloft the wishes of vigorous little boys (little girls apparently not being hot-ticket items in Japanese culture). Maybe because of its rich metaphorical value, the subject of fish and fishing has also inspired men to literary heights. Fish have found their way into the hearts of authors as disparate as Izaak Walton, 17th-century English author of The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man's Recreation: A Discourse on Fish and Fishing Not Unworth the Perusal of Most Anglers; angler-author Ernest Hemingway (remember The Old Man and the Sea?) and news anchor Tom Brokaw, who is credited with saying, "If fishing is a religion, fly-fishing is high church."

Mesa's "Fish Out Of Water" captures the reverence afforded throughout the ages to fish and the aesthetics of snaring them, which these days embraces a "catch and release" philosophy of environmental preservation. In this exhibition, artists and authors alike ponder the bittersweet mystery of man against fish, human versus nature, in a lyric battle that is never quite won nor lost. Artist John Blanchard sums it up eloquently in his personal reverie about fishing: "It is a state of dominance and sacramentally worshipful . . . at the same time. It is primeval and metaphysical. . . . The allure of fishing is inexplicable and irresistible."

Be forewarned: This show has to be approached the same way one would approach fly-fishing--slowly, patiently and with Zenlike contemplation--since there are lots of wall texts quoting a number of Southwestern authors, as well as statements from artists whose work hangs in the show. All predictably wax orgasmic and/or philosophical.

In fact, the wall texts often outshine the visuals that accompany them. "Fish Out Of Water" definitely caters to those of us who still read, rather than just look at the pretty pictures.

Let the soothing blue-green walls of the exhibit and the background audio of bubbling brooks and quiet music (which can leave you wanting to go to the rest room) lull you into the serene state of mind it takes to really appreciate this quiet little show. A meditative state is the appropriate mindset to view artist John Gierach's handpainted lithographs, inspired by gyotaku, a 600-year-old Japanese art form that originated in China. Gyotaku prints are made by inking up a real fish, pressing rice paper into it and making a rubbing that will record every slimy scale--ultimate evidence of an angler's catch.

Of a more metaphysical bent are the mixed-media drawings of Ken Iwamasa, in which hand-tied lures vie for attention with ponderous ruminations and simple drawings about the essence of fly-fishing. While more traditional water-scene paintings like those of Peter Holbrook and Merrill Mahaffey are not my usual cup of tea, they're not completely out of place in this show, given its general theme. Of more visual interest, however, are Ted Vogel's mixed-media sculpture and, in particular, an installation titled "Dancing," in which the artist has placed an improbable ceramic fish, bespeckled with glitter, against a nostalgic background of kitschy fishing photos and postcards; the inevitable cheesecake that goes with fishing is supplied by an old photo of a very young Marilyn Monroe in a modest, two-piece bathing suit. Any of these postcards and photos would be at home in the show's diorama re-creating a fisherman's private work station, strewn with feathers for lures and decorated with such treasures as a plaque of "The Fisherman's Prayer" and an "I'd Rather Be Fishing" hat. Staged by dedicated members of Canyon Creek Anglers of Phoenix, the scenario could belong to any avid fisherman.

Creeping urban development and vanishing fishing spots in America are potent indications of the decline in the quality of life here, one of the major themes running through "Fish Out Of Water" and an overriding concern of artist Richard Thompson. Thompson's oversize canvases of a cartoony Arcadia in which larger-than-life trout emerge from pristine ponds are sad reminders of a quickly disappearing past. Humor is harnessed by Ann Coe to underscore this point in "Another Western Water Project," in which warty water monsters reminiscent of Godzilla destroy Hoover Dam while seemingly uninterested bumper-to-bumper traffic wends its way through an adjacent mountain pass. More than once in this show, fish are likened to "canaries in the mine," a metaphor that refers to the finny tribe's proclivity for literally going belly up whenever their native habitat becomes polluted. Unfortunately, their silvery bellies are flashing in the sun much too frequently these days, victims of man's devastating insensitivity to his surroundings. While "Fish Out Of Water" may not be the be-all and end-all of art exhibitions, it does gently force us to slow down and think about things we can no longer take for granted, things that, tragically, are disappearing faster than the flow of a good trout stream.

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