If you want to see the state of contemporary art in Arizona, you'll have to go down to Tucson--and down the stairs at the Tucson Museum of Art. The Arizona Biennial, the only statewide juried exhibition open to all artists and craftspeople from or living in Arizona, and a show that traditionally dominates the museum's exhibition space, is wedged into the lower level this year. Not only is it in "the basement," as some call it, the show is undermined by its own catalogue.

The Biennial is historically considered "a big deal," as one Tucson artist put it, among the state's contemporary artists. This year's show, which enjoyed a jam-packed opening on June 16 and runs through August 20, was juried by known figures in the Arizona art community--Lisa Sette of the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale; David Rubin, curator of 20th-century art at the Phoenix Art Museum and Tucson artist Jim Waid.

The show descends from the "Arizona Outlook" and "Arizona Crafts" exhibitions, which alternated years in the 1970s and combined to form the Biennial in 1980. This type of juried exhibition gathers, in Arizona's case, emerging and established artists from a wide geographic area. Such shows have a wonderful potential to educate both the artists and the public about the shape creativity is taking in their own backyards.

So I was disturbed to find the show located in the museum's lower level, or "basement." The location wouldn't be so bad if the amount of art could be reduced by a third or so. There's just too much art for so small a space. I understood that past Biennials were both upstairs and downstairs. Worse though, is executive director Robert Yassin's foreword to the exhibition catalogue wherein, instead of supporting the show, he points out what he calls the "clear lacks" in it, one of which is "traditional (sic) based Western American painting."

Since when could the absence of cowboy art be considered a lack of anything except bad taste? The phenomenon called "cowboy art" or "traditional Western American painting," with its hard and fast rules and ego appeal, often seems closer conceptually to commercial art or even advertising than fine art. Besides, the jurors reported that no "Western American" painting was even submitted. So what is the point of discussing its absence?

But first things first.
The "basement," as it turns out, is a sore point with most of the dozen or so artists I spoke with. The location sparks a lively--and pissed-off--debate, although most of the artists preferred to remain nameless. But many of them felt that for an exhibition as important as the Biennial's moniker would indicate, both the summer timing and physical placement of the exhibition presented the work as "a side show."

Joanne Stuhr, the Biennial curator, admitted being "prepared for complaints about the exhibition being on the lower level. I was braced for that," she said. "And it was my decision to have it on the lower level. But it was the only way to work it with the exhibition schedule."

Stuhr also disagreed with claims that the show's importance is downplayed by the summer scheduling. "I don't think this is necessarily a terrible time of the year. Attendance does slack off. As its [the Biennial's] importance is demonstrated, I'm sure that could change, too. It was off the schedule for a while," added Stuhr, referring to the Biennial's five-year hiatus from 1988 through 1993, "and it was a real fight to get it back."

When I asked why, Stuhr replied, "I don't know."
Lisa Sette, who helped jury the show, said she "didn't know it was going to be in the basement," and added, "It is a fair criticism that it is cramped. Maybe the museum will think about it in the future."

But some feel the downsizing of the show demonstrates how the museum feels about its importance now. "Putting the show downstairs is a statement in itself," said one prize-winning artist, laughing. "At the opening, people were just looking at each other and shaking their heads. The show is scheduled two years in advance! Maybe fewer pieces should have been accepted or something. But some of the stuff is installed in such a way that it is difficult to look at, much less appreciate."

Now let's move on to something completely different. Namely executive director Robert Yassin's statements in the catalogue--statements so bizarre that I thought them at first part of a weird prank. In his foreword, the director charges that while the Biennial "provides an extensive sampling of Arizona's art, it does not provide its full definition."

Yassin's remarks go on, "There is, for example, no Native American art in the show, nor much in the way of traditional (sic) based Western American painting or sculpture nor, in this edition of the show, an extensive representation of crafts. These are clearly lacks especially in Arizona, a state rich in such art."

He adds later, "If the show looks rather 'avant-garde,' it is because this show has always tended to deal with progressive art, and because of that this is the kind of work that was submitted for consideration."

In summing up, Yassin makes acknowledgments and comments on the "problems and imperfections of any jurying system." He also quotes from his own foreword to the 1993 Biennial catalogue. (One artist described Yassin's self-indulgently quoting himself as "a crime.")

I can only guess that Yassin was trying to placate the Board of Trustees with these statements, and I spoke to people in a position to know who also felt that was the case. (I tried to reach Yassin for comment, but he was unavailable.) It is a political reality that directors need to be sensitive to the Board of Trustees, which are typically conservative groups.

But these folks must be a tough crew to please. To characterize the 1995 Arizona Biennial as "avant-garde" is, well, somewhat of a stretch.

It's not too surprising that some artists and Arizona art people were ticked off about the director's statement on his museum's show.

"I thought it was really weird that it was part of the catalogue," one Tucson art dealer said. "I mean, it should have been left out of the essay. It sounds like an apology.

"I don't know all the ins and outs of the museum, but I understand he may have been dealing with political pressure from the board [of Trustees]. The weird thing is--there is plenty of Western art in the museum."

Another person who worked closely with the exhibition theorized Yassin was trying to deflect from himself criticism he anticipated receiving from his board concerning the selections for the show. "It didn't make sense to talk about a show's perceived pitfalls," this person said. "I know he had his reasons, but it just sounds bad."

And these "pitfalls" are fabricated. The future of Arizona art hopefully will not stagnate into a pool of manly cowboys and their horses. It is a limited genre made for a limited, often wealthy audience that generally cares less for aesthetics than for the Western fantasy the works depict. Traditional Western art would have had no place in a show judged on "high creativity," "new ways of seeing" and "degree of challenge."

Maybe that is why no Western works were submitted!
The slides that were entered came in droves. The first "blind" judging this spring (works were not identified by artist) cut down the entries from about 1,100 to 130. Artists were then asked to bring the work in for a second judging, which brought the number to the final 92 works from 64 artists. Twenty-three are from the Phoenix area.

Jurors Jim Waid, David Rubin and Lisa Sette all felt extremely positive about the quality of the work that made it into the show. They looked for work that was "exciting, aggressive and challenging." Sette and Waid both described their excitement in not even recognizing work belonging to a particular artist because the artist's progress had been so great since the jurors' last encounter with the work.

Some very strong pieces reach out and yank you in. Standing out from the walls with a vengeance were: Phoenix artists Max Lanier and Lora McDonald's provocative mixed-media art books wrapped in everything from rusty steel to inner tubing, Moline of Tucson's bizarre and obsessive shadowbox collage "Malleus Maleficarum" with its nuns and bizarre pornographic allusions, Tucson artist Daryl Child's hellish pastel "En Vito," Martina Shenal's quietly beautiful beeswax-rubbed collage works on canvas and muslin and Tucson-based Joanne Kerrihard's haunting oil-on-wood landscape "Exterior (Triptych)" for which she won a TMA Purchase Award.

Tucsonan Ann Simmons-Myers also won a purchase award for her elegantly toned silver print "Shrouded: Rose Garden." The photograph, as well as its companion "Shrouded: Landing," both feature what could be their title images mysteriously wrapped and sculptured into bundles and nestled in underbrush.

I also admired Pamela Marks' "Gouache Drawing" of an unidentifiable digestive organ. Could be a mutant pancreas, I don't know. But the amoeboid anatomy study over the pale washed background faintly showing a rough sketch is like a marriage of 15th-century anatomy studies and Terry Gilliam's animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Douglas Denniston, Tucson painter and retired professor, whose work is found in various public collections and whose sparse desert oil landscape "Blackwell House" is included in the show, laid down his own take on the show quite philosophically. Denniston, a self-described "dead-white European-American male," is 74 years old and couldn't have cared less if I used his name.

"I don't think one can blame the museum uniquely for this," he said. "The museums are what they are and the museum here is doing what all other museums are doing. They do not have a choice but to make money and are generally in a bind financially.

"The patrons, the people who buy art here in the Southwest, are the cowboy politician people," he continued. "The political problems in the show represent the problems in the art world today. Taken as a singular situation it isn't that interesting. What is a problem, though, is when the assumption is made that art that originates locally isn't worthwhile--that assumption or perception can be damaging to the arts community in Arizona or anywhere."

Loose Ends
As long as you are in Tucson, stop in at the Center for Creative Photography to see California photographer Arthur Tress' "The Wurlitzer Trilogy."

Commencing with The Teapot Opera, Tress depicts a photographic and textual cosmology peopled with teapots, unicorns and combusted melons on the stage of a Victorian toy theatre. He moves into Fish Tank Sonata (for which he received an NEA grant), a series of photographs that document a parable of ecological destruction, staged with toy personae within an antique fish tank that constantly changes location. The final cycle, "Requiem for a Paperweight" meditates on a depersonalized, cyber-society through images inspired by computers and Balinese puppet theatre. This cycle is accompanied by an ambient soundscape by composer R. Weis. Not to be missed.

The center is located at the University of Arizona. For info, call 1-520-621-7968.

While you're at it, make the Etherton Gallery a stop on your art trail and see some real Western art. Gallery owner Terry Etherton, besides having a wonderful collection of vintage photographs, possesses a gorgeous portfolio of Frank A. Rinehart's (no relation) platinum print portraits. Rinehart was hired in 1898 to photograph Native American chiefs and tribal leaders as part of the 1898 Indian Congress in Omaha, Nebraska.

Rinehart eventually took more than 500 photos of the likes of Geronimo and Red Cloud and other tribal leaders, documenting the only gathering of its kind, ever. The Etherton Gallery has the largest collection of these prints outside of the Getty Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The Etherton Gallery is to be found at 135 South Sixth Avenue, 1-520-624-7370.

Billie's Cafe and Coffee Shop was the Tucson site where my pal Mary Anne and I discovered strawberry muffins with hot-pink icing and an innovative cross-marketing scheme both unusual and vaguely art related. As we were hashing out the state of the world over fuchsia baked goods, we noticed that Billie's walls were sprinkled with five-inch by seven-inch still-life snapshots featuring diverse arrangements of tomatoes, bell peppers and large chunks of driftwood.

Above my head hung an eight-inch by ten-inch of a gray kitten crawling from a dirty yellow plastic colander. It was fantastic. All were scrawled with the name "Cardwell," mounted in cheap Masonite and Plexiglas frames and all were priced somewhere between $6 and $15.

Bill Cardwell had a sign by the cash register inviting interested customers of his "Sweet Sixteen" food and pet photos to call in for orders, or to "just chat." Discovery of Cardwell's stash of business cards by the cashier revealed, however, that he not only is a pet and veggie photographer, but president of "Cardwell and Co."--an operation that will guarantee a Visa or Mastercard regardless of "no credit, bad credit, or slow credit."

This man definitely knows the angles and works them hard.

Here is a call for volunteers from CRASHarts at the Icehouse. CRASH is currently looking for people to help with everything from manning computers to digging holes in the dirt as part of the "Pocket Park" sculpture garden and urban landscape project at the Icehouse. The effort is in its baby phase, so give Helen Hestenes a call at 258-1609 if you've got it in ya. The folks at CRASH are also looking for volunteers to help out with the upcoming ten-year anniversary celebration.

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