You don't often notice the effect that a museum's architecture has on exhibitions--the way the surroundings bolster some shows and diminish others. But it's difficult to miss the boost that the Phoenix Art Museum's 1998 Triennial gets from the museum's hangarlike Steele Gallery.
From the moment Carlos Mollura's giant, black soccer ball and 10-x-8-x-2-foot stack of inflated plastic containers loom into view at midgallery, the one as dark and brooding as the other is bright and mesmerizing, it's clear that these and the show's 60 other contemporary works are the kind of art this gallery--part of the museum's new addition designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien--was meant to hold.
Everything tends to look holier in this kind of church. And big things even more so. Yet there are more than size and the usual museum aura at work here. The museum has displayed plenty of large objects in this space before. But none of the shows has danced with the space in quite the same way.
As a result, the Triennial initially looks stronger and more interesting than most of its individual works actually are.
You easily could spend the first 15 or 20 minutes here simply absorbing the measured way in which the show, organized by David Rubin, PAM's curator of 20th-century art, interacts with its surroundings--the way it pulses your attention back and forth between encompassing views of large works and close observations of small.
The museum has always sponsored some kind of regional exhibition. In the 1960s, it was a juried show of local artists. It evolved in the 1970s into a biennial featuring specific media. The triennial format came along when Bruce Kurtz was curator of 20th-century art in the late 1980s. He expanded the exhibition's reach beyond Arizona to include New Mexico, Texas and Southern California.
The last museum Triennial, curated by Kurtz in 1993, focused on gender-issue art. Since then, the schedule was knocked out of whack by the construction of the museum's new wing, the departure of Kurtz and the arrival of Rubin.
Rubin opted to take a themeless approach to organizing this show. This being his first attempt to make sense of the region's art, he says he "really wanted to just see what was out there, and in the process of looking, let the work define the show."
He says he quickly realized that he wanted to find works that were "visually engaging"--basic in the arts--and had what he characterizes as a "fresh and unfamiliar edge."
"I'm one of those who still believe that art is a visual medium," he says. "Even if it's conceptual, it still has to connect to human beings through our sense of sight. That doesn't mean necessarily that it has to do that in concrete visual form, because that could also involve what it triggers in your imagination."
He also wanted the works he chose to be accessible--the "A" word in PAM's and other museums' efforts to draw crowds that surveys say are terrified by art.
Says Rubin, "A lot of art is so obscure and hermetic in terms of its content or issues that even if one were to explain it to an uninitiated audience, they could be very justified in saying, 'But why should I care about that?'
"Today's artists were weaned on artists from Kandinsky through Pollock, who made art that was essentially about the self. And I think it's gone too far to that extreme, at the expense of the audience."
Rubin considered between 200 and 220 artists before settling on the 18 in the show. Primarily baby boomers and Gen Xers, they fall into three groups he loosely categorizes as conceptual, abstract and visionary artists.
Rubin isn't a big fan of survey shows that attempt to identify and validate art-world trends. But the Triennial manages to tap the prevailing retro mood of much contemporary art. Many of the works here have the familiar stamp of minimalism, process art, and light-and-space art from the 1960s or installations from the 1970s.
Yet they also reflect the contemporary artists' preoccupation with the systematic way in which technology distances and mediates what we consider to be real and true.
Works by Amy Adler, Carole Kim and Martina Shenal aren't so much about the image at hand as they are about the process of developing it from layers of filtered and translated information.
For example, Adler's images are photographs of drawings of photographs of herself. They are works that essentially distance viewers from the original while bringing them closer to the more pervasive modern reality of reproductions.
Kim followed a similar course in making her "rash drawings." She photocopied her skin, then used the photocopy as the basis for a round, collaged drawing that comes across as a microscopic view of whatever it was that was itching her.
And in Andrea Bowers' "Spectacular Appearances" drawings, one or two small images of spectators isolated from a photograph of a crowd appear on the otherwise large, empty space of the paper, giving the effect of a telephoto shot of the subjects.
These efforts to objectify experience don't do much as art. But they are intriguing symptoms of an age flooded with differing versions and choices of reality.
Their effect is to reduce aesthetic experiences to a mental swap meet of second-, third- and fourth-hand accounts or information--an approach that's fast becoming this decade's artistic and philosophical cliche. But in a culture that's endlessly revising, revisiting and repeating itself, such cliched images may enjoy a lengthy half-life.
That isn't to say Rubin has turned his back on old-fashioned artistic originals.
Henry Leo Schoebel's paintings, which received the show's Arizona Award, have some beautiful optical touches. The buoyant effects of the yellow circles in Artemis, for example, constantly force the eye to refocus and reevaluate the surface. And in Galatea, his chains of shrinking and enlarging circles produce a fleeting effect of arcing lines that appear and disappear as your eye stops and moves.
Yet the show's real entertainment comes from Thomas Ashcraft's installation, Adventures in Tradecake, a room that functions more or less as a new-age R&D lab. Ashcraft calls his low-light world Heliotown--the place across the tracks from the Heliopolis in Jose Luis Borges' story "The Cult of the Phoenix."
It's filled with humming, buzzing sounds of the cosmos twinkling, and cases filled with invented and revived remnants, beautiful sand-cast silver coins and walls holding models of molecules for such visionary treats as caffeine, chocolate and more illicit items.
Every world needs its currency. To operate in this one, Ashcraft has concocted something called tradecake, a neatly wrapped candy-bar bullion--made of chocolate, pollen and other ingredients--meant to serve as the money substitute in the coming biological commonwealth, where, as you might have guessed, they don't take American Express.
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You get the feeling that Ashcraft's little room is a cleaned up and considerably tamer version of his studio in Santa Fe. I have no idea what any of it means. But it has a Gulliver charm that's out of time and out of scale. Tiny things loom large and take on weight. Micro is monumental. And thinking seems to be more akin to cooking--a form of alchemy--than nesting atop an idea and grunting until it hatches.
What's missing, of course, is Ashcraft himself. As curious as his room is as an installation, it's even better as a performance. He shuffles around propping up twigs, fussing and fidgeting with cabinets and electrical wires, and whispering whimsy about a world that seems real enough to live in, until you realize that the museum's surveillance camera is watching everything you do.
The 1998 Phoenix Triennial continues through Sunday, October 4, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central. Additional information: 257-1222.