"Sites" Seeing

Art and the urban environment hold a lesson for the future

"Any time you introduce a large body of water into an art museum, it's a little hair-raising," Heather Lineberry, senior curator at ASU Art Museum, confides with a nervous laugh.

Lineberry is making uneasy reference to an expansive, 19-by-22-foot reflecting pool brimming with several inches of water, which was recently constructed on the museum's second floor. Despite the adage about water and electricity not mixing, the glassy indoor "pond," as Lineberry prefers to call it, is an integral part of a room-size video installation included in "Sites Around the City: Art and Environment," her latest curatorial project at the museum.

"Sites Around the City" is more than just the name of the art exhibition Lineberry spent the past couple of years deftly organizing. Her exhibition, which spotlights the wildly divergent work of nine nationally recognized artists, is actually the core of a citywide undertaking that focuses on art created in and about the environment -- whether natural or artificial -- and man's special relationship to it.

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

With a degree of finesse ordinarily characteristic of an ambassadorial attaché, the 36-year-old curator has managed to wangle the participation of more than 25 different museums, galleries, alternative art spaces and arts commissions in the Valley in what she's dubbed "an organizational behemoth" dedicated to her loosely interpreted environmental theme.

Admittedly, "the environment" is a grandiose, unwieldy, highly malleable subject involving potentially limitless issues and concepts, all open to a variety of individual interpretations. But maybe that's the ultimate secret to both the success of Lineberry's ASU show and her overall project.

"It's a huge theme," Lineberry admits. "It's one of the reasons I was inspired to go beyond the museum because it's such a huge topic and everybody takes a slightly different perspective."

While "Sites" includes yawningly predictable museum offerings -- like Phoenix Art Museum's companion exhibition, "Images of Nature: Selections From the Museum Collection" -- it's also inspired shows like Galeria Mesa's "Environment 2000," a juried exhibition of multimedia work dealing with "the global [and] local, urban [and] rural, positive [and] negative."

Alternative spaces, like new-to-the-scene Barlow & Straker Gallery, Artlab 16 and Modified, as well as long-established venues such as MARS Artspace, have also jumped on the bandwagon in their own, less mainstream fashions. For example, Barlow & Straker is featuring a collaborative installation work by artists Andy Guzzonato and Mona Higuchi, who have broadly interpreted Lineberry's theme to include illegal immigration across the Arizona desert from Mexico. Even deCompression Gallery has flung open its long-closed doors for most of March to host installations and performances by Ariel Guzik, Gustavo Artigas and Taniel Morales, three internationally exhibited sound artists from Mexico City imported specifically for "Sites" by ASU West.

"Sites Around the City: Art and Environment" is also a just-add-water showcase for some of the more noteworthy public arts projects that dot Phoenix's increasingly urbanized landscape.

The 27th Avenue solid waste management facility on Lower Buckeye Road in south Phoenix, the Seventh Avenue "grasshopper" pedestrian bridge in Moon Valley, the Hummingbird Sanctuary Garden in old town Scottsdale and the Rio Salado Pathways project in Tempe have been subsumed into Lineberry's all-encompassing environmental rubric. Even a 1.5-mile stretch of the Pima Freeway, which features an eye-popping, cast-concrete mural project on the freeway's noise-abatement and retention walls, falls well within the scope of environmentally related art.

"Phoenix has a number of phenomenal eco-art projects that have been commissioned by local arts commissions," says Lineberry. "They're amazing projects, where artists were part of design teams and still kept a presence for the art; but they also looked at broader issues about the way humans interact with the environment in an urban context."

She notes that the 27th Avenue solid waste management facility is a good example. "Instead of hiding the fact that 3 million people are going to produce an incredible amount of waste, they decided to turn the building inside out, to turn it into -- for lack of a better phrase -- an aesthetically pleasing facility with educational potential."

Within the confines of the actual museum exhibition, however, Lineberry has chosen to display artwork in less daunting, though no less impressive, media than waste processing tanks and giant concrete slabs. A bit top-heavy with representational photography of Southern California mini-malls, freeways and suburban house façades by Catherine Opie and Todd Hido, the exhibition's most commanding work is straightforwardly experiential. In several instances, artists in "Sites" have created total installation environments that capture the emotionally evocative -- and sometimes disorienting -- quality inherent in one's landscape.

One of its most effective pieces is On the Way Home by Taiwan-born Su-Chen Hung, the San Francisco artist responsible for creating that anxiety-inducing indoor reflecting pool as an integral part of a large video installation in Kresge Gallery. Inspired by the lingering memory of train window reflections in a nearby river, Hung has re-created the bittersweet pull of the lay of her homeland and her homesickness for a place she will never feel a real part of again.

It took Hung eight years to piece together the footage of urban and rural Taiwanese landscapes whizzing by in six large video monitors, footage she shot on train rides through the country. As pagodas and military convoys give way to palm-lined horizon on the screens, her rolling imagery is echoed in the bottomless darkness of Hung's perfectly still pool of water. The ethereal glow from the monitors flickers on nearby walls, as the sound of whooshing wind and clattering train tracks wafts softly through the gallery. On the wall above the video screens, Hung has projected a serene peachy-mauve sunset fading over the black rim of mountain peaks, also mirrored by the water. The contemplative, almost religious nature of the work is underscored by the gallery's silence, broken only by hushed ambient train and wind sounds.

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.

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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