Better double-time it to Shemer Art Center on Camelback if you want to see "Land: Unconventional Approaches to Landscape" -- billed as an exhibition that's "pushing the boundaries" of the Phoenix municipal gallery -- since it's only going to be up for a mere two weeks.
Considering the safe, watered-down fare that Shemer has traditionally shown in the past, the boundary-pushing description is all too apt.
Organized by Shemer's part-time curator Gina Cavallo Collins (yes, the same one who writes occasionally for New Times, but if you really think that holds any sway with me, think again), "Land" was in large part inspired by Shemer's 20th anniversary as a city art facility. Built in 1925 by Phoenix real estate pioneer and banker Henry Coerver, who once owned most of the Arcadia district, the mini-hacienda was mysteriously named Casa de Wanda. In 1928, the house, on a 40-acre parcel of fragrant citrus groves with an incredible view of Camelback Mountain, became the winter retreat of the Suhr family, heirs to the Pennzoil fortune, who in the spirit of true egalitarianism enlarged it to accommodate their chauffeur and maid. Casa de Wanda, by then on a mere two-and-a-half-acre lot, was eventually rescued from the bulldozers of real estate developers in 1984 by Martha Evvard Shemer, who bought the home and donated it to the City of Phoenix as an art center and museum.
"Land" takes full advantage of both Shemer's interior and exterior spaces, spilling out the doors of the art center's vintage building into the lawn and garden areas of the property. Blink once and you may miss one of the most important outside installations of the show, created by artist Matthew Moore. Shemer's own happy-ending history informs Moore's exterior earthwork piece dug into the citrus-dotted grounds adjacent to the hacienda turned gallery. From a fourth-generation farming family that still tills the soil for a living in the West Valley surrounded by the omnipresent threat of residential development, Moore (who actually works on his family's farm) often makes art that revolves around the insidious encroachment of the urban on the rural. For "Land," he has hand-excavated part of the Shemer property in the shape of a to-scale floor plan of a 1,750-square-foot house, one of too many that probably would have been built where Shemer Art Center stands, had the Phoenix benefactress not grabbed it from the clutches of land-hungry developers. A quick glance at Moore's rudimentary excavation is all it takes to appreciate that Shemer easily could have been transformed into a maze of tacky, charm-deprived little houses, the sort that continue to invade the Valley.
Perhaps one of the best surprises in the show is an indoor-outdoor installation by seasoned local artist Joe Willie Smith, who's long been caught in the clutches of dealing with black cultural identity in his art. Throwing off the shackles of ethnicity as subject matter, Smith finally has created art that transcends the obvious and ineffectual, like his work that appeared in ASU Art Museum's "No Absolutes" and, more recently, in SMoCA's "HairStories." Instead, Smith unreservedly conjoins interior and exterior space to create a piece that incorporates paintings on Plexiglas and debris found on the art center's property -- without any reference to African-American history.
Using fallen oranges embedded in nests of dirt and leaves, Smith created a 360-degree arc around the property, as well as a carefully laid dirt mound leading back to a small window in one of the center's rooms, studding the exterior with raked pools of dirt around collected tree trimmings that echo Kyoto's Zen gardens of Ryoan-ji. The interior room is lined with rows of small expressionist paintings of a tree framed by its small window, executed at various times of day from a number of different vantage points. The conceptual and visual complexity of Smith's latest installation bodes well for the artist, who needed to get past the past a long time ago.
Taking a different tack, both Thomas Strick and Carolyn Lavender utilize formal land-related measuring and exploration devices in their work as design elements to fairly decent effect. Strick incorporates surveying equipment and topological elements, inherently scientific tools, with photo constructions in his largely sculptural art in "Land." But it's Lavender's multilayered grid paintings, hanging in the same room with Strick's sculptural pieces, that steal attention from Strick's fairly predictable work. Taking months to create, each painting is constructed of up to 20 layers of clear acrylic on which basically monochromatic paint has been dolloped, dribbled and dabbed. The final effect is almost tomographic. The viewer is able to see through the rich strata built up and visible through grids and pencil markings. Lavender's paintings recall archaeological digs graphically revealing the long-buried presence of different civilizations.
While artfully displayed and dramatically lighted, Melissa Martinez's roomful of assorted hand-picked detritus easily could have been excluded from "Land," its presence adding nothing to the show's fairly well-balanced choice of work. On one cerise-colored wall, Martinez has hung six wooden trays of different-hued dirt, all collected from one location. On another wall, jars of honey fill a lone shelf, representing the production of hundreds of thousands of bees. To underscore the profundity of it all, a sliding drop of honey produced by one bee during its lifetime is encased in a frame on the opposite wall. Even the tiny, hip video monitors atop tall wooden pedestals the artist has thrown in to show black-and-white videos of trees fail to save her art from the pedestrian.
Though Martinez's potpourri of work is a prime example of the primordial fact that flashy form can never make up for lack of substance, "Land" overall succeeds in bulldozing over the conventional and reconstructing the concept of landscape.
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