Provincial Scatology

ASU museum showcases "another" Arizona

It's no secret that the identity of "Arizona" or "Southwest" art has been changing for some time now. As the urban forces that molded the cultures of other international cities have begun to affect our own, the art being made here has become as varied and complex as the works in "Another Arizona," the current exhibition at Arizona State University's Art Museum.

The museum's senior curator, Heather Sealy Lineberry, points out in the show's gallery guide that you won't find any howling coyotes or cowboys chasing Indians here. And there aren't any glowing scenes of lost American spaces and ideals. The show's aim, she says, "was to get beyond the stereotypical, and present a broader view of the kind of art being made by artists in Arizona."

It also was conceived to introduce Arizona artists to curators outside the state.

Unlike the museum's past all-Arizona shows--"Here and Now" and "Valley Artists"--this one was selected by a jury which, in addition to Lineberry and the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, included Californians Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Enrique Chagoya, a professor at Stanford University.

The panel chose the 23 Arizonans in the exhibition from a pool of nearly 360 who had submitted slides.

Lineberry says the idea of inviting outside jurors arose during discussions the museum held with area artists during the past few years. "I think the artists saw this as a way of getting a fresh view and overcoming some of our own biases about work," Lineberry says.

The assumption is that fresh eyes mean fresh opportunities for overlooked artists. But that isn't necessarily so. Art juries often wind up simply confirming an institution's outlook, taste and direction. And that appears to be what occurred here.

Schimmel, who curated MOCA's large, current survey of performance art, has a proven appetite for images and approaches with a conceptual edge--as do Chagoya and Zeitlin. They also have a soft spot for works freighted with social and political messages.

Like most juried exhibitions, "Another Arizona" is a mishmash of quality and works. Yet a couple of trends are worth noting.

While the show contains a smattering of paintings and sculpture, it emphasizes works in new formats and new media. Some take the form of installations; others derive from the manipulation of new technologies and processes. Many are laden with the increasingly popular notion that ideas and messages make the art, and that self-consciousness has its own value.

Lineberry did a fine job of grouping the works. She concentrated the larger art installations at the old museum site at Matthews Center and smaller works in upper museum galleries at the Nelson Fine Arts Center.

Among the highlights at Matthews is Al Price's "Presidential Busts"--another in his continuing series of mechanized sculptures. The rickety charm of their buzzing, whirring and jangling often seems to be an elaborate ruse for a more subtle show of projected images, lights and shadows. In this piece, a motorized, cagelike arm--about 10 feet long--circles the room on two rolling legs. As it orbits, a small light at the end of the arm passes within inches of four equally spaced presidential busts made from the same wire-cage material.

It's tough to tell which presidents are here. But their identity doesn't seem to be the issue. The machine amounts to a whimsical tour of history's cyclical effect on presidential and other power images: Their shadows loom large and clear in the close glare of the spotlight. Then they diminish and dim until the light of future interest comes round again.

Price's challenge has always been to control the setting. He was able to do that fairly successfully a few years back at his show at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. But the circumstances here aren't nearly as kind. Shadows from the gallery's track lights mix with his own intended web of transient shadows, and room pillars break up the rhythm of the shadow plays.

At the Nelson location, Marie Navarre's small assemblages of found objects and images also manage to connect on a variety of levels. At their best, Navarre's works are a quiet form of visual alchemy. In "The weight of the body at the center of the earth," for instance, she juxtaposes a small, almost skeletal image of insect wings with an equally small diagram of the human nervous system and an illustration of the principle of leverage. The nerve lines webbing outward from the spine jibe nicely with the subtle filigree pattern in the wings, and somehow spark an interplay between lightness and heft--and contextual nature of meaning. Similar subtleties also enliven her "singing lessons/frail tunes."

Unfortunately, too many of the exhibition's other works suffer from the trite simplicities of Christine Smith's digitally manipulated images of Barbie's friend Ken, with commentaries like "stroke my ego" and "he was nothing but a lousy one-night stand."

Or the irrelevance of Alfred Quiroz's large caricature of Ronald Reagan's public life as "Da Grate Kommie-Nuke-Ater"--a work made just this past year, nearly a decade after Reagan left office.

Except for Dan Collins' latest installation in his ongoing series concerning television and mediated realities--in many ways a repeat of earlier works--the installations leave you wondering whether you're viewing the prop or the play.

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