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When Baker selected Lara Taubman as his co-curator, she was a freelance art critic, with most of her work appearing in local publications like Java and Shade. Educated at Bennington (painting and architecture) and New York University (master's in American studies), Taubman worked as an instructor at Mohave Community College in Lake Havasu City before moving to Phoenix. She is not of Native American descent.
At the time Baker brought her on for "Holy Land," Taubman, 38, had just one show to her credit as a curator, "A Warlike People," which critiqued the country's response to the War on Terror.
While the show drew raves from local critics, it took place far from the museum scene, at downtown's monOrchid Gallery.
2301 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Region: Central Phoenix
Baker and Taubman's "Holy Land" collaboration, like so many downtown art projects, began at Lux. One minute the pair was discussing the idea of diaspora over coffee; in the next, Baker had signed Taubman up as co-curator.
It's that sort of decisiveness that Baker's colleagues admire.
He is, they say, someone who trusts his judgment enough to push the envelope. He's also someone good enough politically, and sufficiently well-liked at the Heard, to get his ideas approved.
"If anybody else was curating there besides Joe, I don't think this would be happening," says Hector Ruiz. "They'd be getting answers like, 'Don't do that.' And that person would probably listen."
On April 4, three days before "Holy Land" is supposed to open, artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre arrive to install their piece, a trailer with a twist.
The front has a face like a fierce Aztec god. Creepily, the face is swirled with human hair. Its eyes are twin television screens.
It's called Maybe.
The brothers are entranced by the gigantic sculptures of heads in the Veracruz region of Mexico.
They have African features: broad noses, wide lips. It's the de la Torres' theory that, just maybe, the Indians of Mexico descended from Africans.
"That's all an artist is doing, is a bunch of 'maybes,'" Einar says.
His wiry dark hair in a messy ponytail, Einar is busy hanging the newly completed plastic butterflies -- complete with their crucifix torsos -- from the gallery's ceiling.
Eventually, he explains, they'll form a funnel cloud, coming up from the trailer.
"Tornados and trailers go together," Jamex says, grinning.
The inside of the trailer is fully stocked with the products of an immigrant's American dream: pork chops, a paperback romance, a patch from the Wiesbaden Rod & Gun Club.
In the center of the trailer, a doll with blond hair and a "Miss America" sash reigns from the top of a stack of trophies -- a trophy wife, not unlike the trophy wife piece featured in Ruiz's show last year. Curiously, rubber tongues have been safety-pinned to her frothy gown.
The brothers like to play with the meaning of all this; as Einar explains, it's all "maybes" to them. But such ambiguity proves a little trickier to the docents who lead guided tours of the Heard.
They are mostly older. And they are used to symbolism: The Wiesbaden patch must symbolize America's obsession with guns. The pork chops, maybe, point to anti-Semitism in the heartland.
The docents meet with the artists after they finish hanging the butterflies. As the brothers tell the story later, it's a clash of two worlds: Docents used to literal meaning, artists used to "maybe."
To Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner, whose piece includes both a tree house and a video of himself building it, one docent has a question: Why does he need both the tree house and the video?
And, to the de la Torre brothers, why does the trophy wife have tongues pinned onto her dress?
"Because it looked cool," Einar answered, puckishly.
"Oh no," one of the docents insisted. "Those are the tongues of the settlers."
"That tells you a little bit about the problems of putting this here," Jamex says a few days later. "For us, this work hasn't been deciphered. If we had the answers, maybe we wouldn't make it."
By the time the show is ready to open, Joe Baker is already pretty much assured that he has a critical hit. He's gotten a call from the Jewish Museum in London, asking if they might discuss importing it. The feedback from other curators is good.
The only question, perhaps, is whether the people who come to the Heard are going to get it, if even the docents will be willing to puzzle over it long enough to decide that it's all a "maybe."
The worst-case scenario, for a show like this, wouldn't be controversy. The worst would be to get ignored.
Like Hector Ruiz's "La Realidad," the Heard has chosen to open "Holy Land" on a First Friday.
The idea: to draw from the crowds of art enthusiasts who flock downtown. Even if the museum, at Central Avenue and Monte Vista Road, is a little north of the main action, it's not a stretch to imagine the hipsters who visit Roosevelt taking the time to drive over and check out the works of some renowned artists.