Art in the Proper Setting

PAM's 1998 Triennial tries to make sense of the region's art

Their effect is to reduce aesthetic experiences to a mental swap meet of second-, third- and fourth-hand accounts or information--an approach that's fast becoming this decade's artistic and philosophical cliche. But in a culture that's endlessly revising, revisiting and repeating itself, such cliched images may enjoy a lengthy half-life.

That isn't to say Rubin has turned his back on old-fashioned artistic originals.

Henry Leo Schoebel's paintings, which received the show's Arizona Award, have some beautiful optical touches. The buoyant effects of the yellow circles in Artemis, for example, constantly force the eye to refocus and reevaluate the surface. And in Galatea, his chains of shrinking and enlarging circles produce a fleeting effect of arcing lines that appear and disappear as your eye stops and moves.

Yet the show's real entertainment comes from Thomas Ashcraft's installation, Adventures in Tradecake, a room that functions more or less as a new-age R&D lab. Ashcraft calls his low-light world Heliotown--the place across the tracks from the Heliopolis in Jose Luis Borges' story "The Cult of the Phoenix."

It's filled with humming, buzzing sounds of the cosmos twinkling, and cases filled with invented and revived remnants, beautiful sand-cast silver coins and walls holding models of molecules for such visionary treats as caffeine, chocolate and more illicit items.

Every world needs its currency. To operate in this one, Ashcraft has concocted something called tradecake, a neatly wrapped candy-bar bullion--made of chocolate, pollen and other ingredients--meant to serve as the money substitute in the coming biological commonwealth, where, as you might have guessed, they don't take American Express.

You get the feeling that Ashcraft's little room is a cleaned up and considerably tamer version of his studio in Santa Fe. I have no idea what any of it means. But it has a Gulliver charm that's out of time and out of scale. Tiny things loom large and take on weight. Micro is monumental. And thinking seems to be more akin to cooking--a form of alchemy--than nesting atop an idea and grunting until it hatches.

What's missing, of course, is Ashcraft himself. As curious as his room is as an installation, it's even better as a performance. He shuffles around propping up twigs, fussing and fidgeting with cabinets and electrical wires, and whispering whimsy about a world that seems real enough to live in, until you realize that the museum's surveillance camera is watching everything you do.

The 1998 Phoenix Triennial continues through Sunday, October 4, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central. Additional information: 257-1222.

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