Gasp From the Past

Retro-ridden 'No Absolutes' is a deconstruction zone hardly worth the detour

If "No Absolutes" -- ASU Art Museum's group exhibition showcasing artists working today in the Southwest -- is any indication of what is truly being produced in the region, maybe it's time to pack it up and move to Minnesota.

Jointly curated by the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, senior curator Heather Lineberry and curatorial assistant John Spiak, "No Absolutes" purports to illustrate postmodern skepticism about power structures, which have been systematically dismantled, according to Zeitlin's introductory essay in the exhibition's catalogue. "The boundaries of how we define race, gender, ethnicity and even species are [being] debated," she notes.

We are told that "[t]he artists in this exhibition approach the uncertainty of the moment in a variety of ways. For some, beauty functions as a solution to longing for meaning. Some even offer comfort in the face of that nihilism, some with metaphors of physical comfort and others with ideological or religious solace."

A scene from Deserter by Leslie Hill and Helen Paris.
A scene from Deserter by Leslie Hill and Helen Paris.

Details

Continues through Sunday, January 7, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free. 480-965-2787.
ASU Art Museum, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe.

With very few exceptions, however, the nostalgia-laced work in "No Absolutes," culled from artists based in Arizona, California and Texas, offers little in the way of beauty, comfort or ideological or religious solace that I can detect. Most is perfectly in synch with the current chic for anything that even remotely smacks of Recent Retro -- including platform shoes, disco, macramé plant hangers, civil rights protest marches and multiculturalism. And most of it never measures up to Zeitlin's eloquent explication.

Top-heavy with weak '70s-style installations of mediocre craftsmanship and rife with clichéd longing for bygone times, the exhibition is basically a throwback to the grooviness of Art Movements Past, and not very well done, at that. Even its physical presentation screams "Not ready for prime time."

Starting on the museum's second floor, we are introduced to the show via an overly large room in which Connie Arismendi's work has been plopped. The space clearly overpowers the meager, slurpily sentimental offerings of this Texas artist, which include Tree of Life, a faux-finished wrought iron candelabra in the shape of a tree with roots sinking into a circle of polished, blue-hued rocks. The candles placed in the candelabra, which look suspiciously like Mexican votive candles, are wrapped with amateurishly drawn, inside-out ink-and-watercolors of what appear to be family and friends. A stone's throw away, Arismendi has planted live orchids in gold-tasseled velvet pillows on another circle of thistle seed-sprinkled rocks in The Pull of Life. Completing the banal trio of installations is Tú y Yo (You and I), in which a small wall shelf, draped with a chiffon scarf decorated with a discomfittingly kitschy painting of a hand holding a rose, is topped with an antique sugar bowl and creamer. All of Arismendi's installation pieces would be more appropriate for some third-rate alternative artists' space rather than a first-rate university museum.

Things continue to go downhill after rounding the corner of a wall separating Arismendi's work from Deserter, an unengaging video installation by ex-visiting ASU art professors Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, both of whom now reside in Europe. The Hill/Paris video piece, chock full of every Southwestern visual cliché known to woman or cowpoke, includes a barely revolving mechanical bull apparently left over from Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta in the throes of a terrible Texas accent.

Deserter consists of four video monitors, perched on pedestals equipped with rearview mirrors, running interminably long footage of several artists (so we are advised by an accompanying wall text) who have come to Arizona, worked here, then left (they "desert" -- get it?). The first monitor shows a lone figure walking into a desert horizon, leaving behind footprints in the sand. The one next to it features a gingerly pirouetting girl in a bra and blindfold, flashing lots of tattooed flesh against monotonous sky. Another screen rolls snail-slow shots of a cowgirl in a 10-gallon hat in the back seat of a car (lest we forget the On the Road references), lighting a cigarette with a gun-shaped lighter. All the while, the final monitor highlights a woman in a red sequined dress with a bad wig and even worse makeup, standing on a block of ice next to a desert saguaro. The only things missing from this picture are a howling coyote and a kokopelli. It's a shame that Hill and Paris squandered so much technology to say so little.

The final second-floor gallery bay contains New Age Hypnotism, a large circular video projection by Los Angeles artist Colin Cook. Cook's goofy video affords some welcome respite from the paralysis that sets in after being subjected to the Arismendi and Hill/Paris installations. An adroit interweaving of religious zealotry, over-the-top televangelism, pop psychology ("get in touch with your inner child") and fortune-telling scams, Cook's piece is a head-on spoof of our society's naive, sometimes straightforwardly inane search for the spiritual -- and our willingness to try just about anything to infuse some meaning or purpose into our existence. It also keeps one guessing as to how the artist achieves the unsettling effect of a baby floating in watery sky (played by the artist sans clothes), who both physically and metaphorically ends up falling to earth with a thud.

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