A Sense of Place Is Lost in the Arizona Biennial 2015 in Tucson

Abigail Felber's Charm School for Marshmallow (2015)EXPAND
Abigail Felber's Charm School for Marshmallow (2015)
Abigail Felber

Arizona is filled with transplants. About half the people who live here, including plenty of artists, come from other places. Yet their work often reflects a strong sense of place and connection to the Sonoran Desert. Some draw inspiration from the desert, while others actually use desert materials as art media or part of their artistic process.

The significance of place, and the impact of living in a desert environment, is reflected in works by many of the state's most respected artists, such as Saskia Jorda, recipient of Phoenix Art Museum's 2015 Contemporary Forum Artist Award. And it's evident in exhibitions featuring artists represented by Lisa Sette Gallery, arguably the state's best contemporary art gallery.

So you'd expect a biennial exhibition of contemporary art in Arizona to exude the strong sense of place, reflect unique desert-dweller concerns, and demonstrate the way artists are tackling issues unique to their own state.

Instead, the 2015 Arizona Biennial, currently on view at the Tucson Museum of Art, relegates this fundamental element of the state's contemporary art scene to appendage status — like the wayward arm of a majestic saguaro.

Most works with desert-inspired themes, materials, or processes are lumped together in one section of the show, and many of the other works featured in the biennial resemble those you might find in nearly any other state.

The result is an exhibition that borders on the generic. Although works shown are uniformly strong, many distract from the core strength of Arizona's contemporary arts scene.

Denis Gillingwater's Push/PullEXPAND
Denis Gillingwater's Push/Pull
Denis Gillingwater

Frankly, the better window into contemporary art in Arizona is a trio of shipping containers transformed into galleries in the Roosevelt Row arts market in downtown Phoenix — where recent exhibitions have explored invasive species, border surveillance, and the impact of human activity on the desert.

It's not that the biennial needs to be a desert-themed show in which every work of art depicts a cactus, bolo tie, or javelina. But desert-driven processes and materials should be paramount. Without that, it might as well be just another group show you could see in Dallas or Des Moines.

This year's biennial includes 50 works by 33 artists — including 12 artists from metro Phoenix and 17 from Tucson — who used diverse media including sawdust, rust, perforated mesh, dissection pine, pine needles, turmeric, and AstroTurf. Guest juror Irene Hofmann, director and chief Curator of SITE Santa Fe, chose from more than 1,490 submissions.

Featured works include two digital prints from Elizabeth Burden's Cartographies series that incorporate an outline of the United States. One contains text from social media tagged #ferguson, and another includes stickers showing sites of shootings committed by and against police.

While it's important that Arizona artists address national issues, a better fit for this biennial would have been works exploring matters of race and justice within the context of our own state. It's not as though there isn't plenty of fodder for such artwork, and we know it's being done here.

It's certainly the case that Arizona artists are exploring issues at the forefront of contemporary art, including the real versus the artificial, scarcity of resources, and the impact of digital culture on society. But there isn't nearly enough evidence in this show of ways they're using desert-infused ideas, materials, or processes to do so.

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The best works in this year's biennial are those deeply rooted in Arizona's landscape, taken in its broadest sense to mean the land, the people, and the animals and plants that share our habitat.

They include Novie Trump's Flutter, comprising wall-mounted porcelain butterflies coupled with a suspended grouping of cocoons and audio recording of hundreds of fluttering butterfly wings, which suggests both the cyclical nature of desert life and the fresh start sought by those who migrate here from Mexico or other countries.

Brooke Molla's In the Garden (Lt. Blue)EXPAND
Brooke Molla's In the Garden (Lt. Blue)
Brooke Molla

Another is Jeffrey J. DaCosta's Great Exchange 2-Golden Eagle Wings, a pair of disembodied wings sculpted with yellow Kevlar and carbon fiber, which prompt reflection on the wrenching of Native Americans from their land and culture.

Despite its significant shortcoming, the failure to focus throughout on desert influences driving the Arizona artist's sense of place, the exhibition does serve to showcase the quality of work being done here.

It's unrealistic to expect any one exhibition to capture the full breadth and depth of the Arizona arts scene. Don't assume biennials are the be-all and end-all of experiencing any one region's full spectrum of contemporary art.

Your best bet for getting to know the many ways Arizona artists incorporate a deep sense of place in their practice is still seeing a wide range of group shows, but this biennial deserves to be among them.

As contemporary art in Arizona continues to evolve, it's nice to pause and train one's eye on even a small slice of the landscape of the now.

Arizona Biennial 2015 continues through Sunday, October 11, at Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. in Tucson. For more information, call 520-624-2333 or visit www.tucsonmuseumofart.org.


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