"Sites" Seeing

Art and the urban environment hold a lesson for the future

Hung's installation is a welcome respite after the viewer navigates through Diana Thater's hallucinogenic video installation Wicked Witch. Inspired by the scene in the Technicolor masterpiece The Wizard of Oz in which the Wicked Witch of the West gazes into a crystal ball at a befuddled Dorothy wandering with Toto in a field of poppies, Thater has re-created her own stony version of Dorothy's perspective from inside the crystal ball looking out onto flower fields in full bloom. She's filled the gallery space with seamless prismatic projections of vibrantly colored blossoms that gradually go out of focus as one's eye travels around the room. The effect mimics the rainbow of color separations that result from looking through old 1950s 3-D glasses.

Not unlike cinematically created reality, Thater's "poppy" fields are mere artifice. They're actually commercial ranunculus fields adjacent to a freeway in Carlsbad, California, to which admission is now charged to the public. Sony three-gun projectors littering the floor and shadows being cast by viewers are potent reminders that all is carefully controlled, manmade illusion, rather than dreamy, untouched nature.

Though the Thater and Hung installations are hard acts to follow, Roxy Paine manages to hold his own in two sculptural installations set up in the museum's third-floor gallery. In Crop and Poison Ivy, Paine humorously elevates artifice to high art, forcing us to think about the very nature of reality itself. The Los Angeles-based artist, who playfully examines the potential danger that lurks in the natural, has obsessively re-created opium poppies and a deserted patch of poison ivy encased in a wood-and-glass vitrine -- complete with faux leaf scale, moths and discarded trash.

Untitled #30 From Freeway Series, an Iris print by Catherine Opie.
Untitled #30 From Freeway Series, an Iris print by Catherine Opie.

These are no stock craft-store silk plant replicas, but eerily lifelike reproductions Paine makes by hand-molding, then hand-casting, components of actual flowers and leaves in epoxy and resin. The pieces are then fastidiously painted, assembled and planted in real dirt supplied by the artist (in this case, by the museum's preparator, Steve Johnson, who, over a four-day period, carefully followed e-mailed instructions from the artist as to the realistic tweaking, bending and arranging of leaves, stems, petals and litter).

Paine's poppy heads ooze bloody narcotic sap. A careful inspection of his dusty poison ivy patch reveals a syringe, beer pop-tops, cigarette butts and a condom wrapper, clearly castoffs from some party animal who's scratched more than just the itch from poison ivy. But what do you expect from a guy who, in the past, created a plot of 2,000 individually crafted psilocybin mushrooms in various stages of growth?

Kim Abeles actually used air pollution to make a series of Smog Collector "paintings" fashioned after idyllically romantic 19th-century landscape paintings from ASU's own collection. Abeles applied stencils of the historical artworks to Plexiglas substrates, a method she's employed for the past 25 years; areas left uncovered by stencil are exposed for up to a month to smog we breathe on a regular basis. The finished products hang next to the original paintings, the contrast between once untouched wilderness and destructive industrial legacy all too vivid.

That same postindustrial aftermath is highly aestheticized in Michael Ashkin's miniature tabletop dioramas depicting abandoned edges of once heavily industrialized areas. Ashkin, who spent years traveling the deserts of the Middle East, is a witness to industrial violation and abandonment of these once animated zones. A 180-degree flip from the cheery landscapes through which a toy train might wend, Ashkin's tiny, to-scale dioramas eloquently speak of toxicity and desolation. In one, a deserted swimming pool, one edge broken, is half-filled with sand and debris; in another, murky polluted water, rotting wood posts breaking its surface, laps at a deserted shore strewn with a tiny tire and a sheet of corrugated tin.

For the most part, "Sites" avoids the hackneyed visual conventions and oppressive didacticism that usually accompany exhibitions with an environmental motif. With understated stealth, the work in the show painlessly directs our attention to what encroaching development, large manmade bodies of water, mechanization and burgeoning population are doing to our landscape and, in turn, to us. It also underscores the ever-mutating relationship between humans, the spaces they inhabit and the psychological connection between both.

As Lineberry points out, "Here we live in this very strange city of 3 million people in the middle of a desert, growing more rapidly than any other city in the country. Most of us have pools. We all drive cars, for the most part, so we have some significant challenges. This is the perfect setting for us to address some of these issues about the environment."

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