In the 1990 Phoenix Triennial at the Phoenix Art Museum, both technique and subject matter drive home the point that life is serious business. Here you can see a large drawing depicting a child beaten to death. Over there, three headlike shapes, covered in velvet, hang from steel-gallows forms, like the trophies of an elegant headhunter. Trees find themselves engulfed by darkness. Flowers in four pretty paintings turn out to be hundreds of tiny explosions. A giant painting shows, after careful examination, a figure on a bicycle being eroded by a blizzard of brush strokes. It's a jungle out there, babe: solitary, nasty, brutish and short.
But that's no reason not to go see the show. Really. Many of the pieces are triumphs of technique. In fact, the sheer pleasure of contemplation seduces you into embracing them visually. Only later do you find the knife in your back.
This subversively grim tone differs somewhat from that of the 1987 Triennial, which seemed loud and sprawling by comparison. The criterion was the same, though: Bruce Kurtz, curator of twentieth-century art, toured Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas to select work developed during the last three years. This time he has included sixteen artists, four from each state.
Unlike the earlier Triennial, which had a lot of sculpture and audio/video work, this show concentrates on drawing, painting and photography, and features only one sculptor, Ann Preston of California.
Fortunately, her work is among the strongest in the show, and it's a double-edged sword. "Cherubim," for example, is a flawlessly cast hydrocal sculpture that looks at first glance like rounded white wings hanging on the wall. Where the wings come together, though, you see two faces in profile kissing. Above these, where the wings separate, the profiles are turned away from each other. The forms flow so smoothly into and out of each other that it's easy to imagine them repeating endlessly out into space, retreating farther and farther away.
Love doesn't last, maybe, or even while you're kissing your lover, you're thinking about someone else. Or perhaps the very thing that brought you two together will drive you away. Cherubim were heavenly messengers who used to bring good news to humankind. Those days are gone.
Preston's two other sculptures carry the same ambivalence. She did the velvet-covered head shapes ("Pendants"), which evoke associations with bondage, decapitation and hanging. But dammit, they're so beautiful and seductive you feel like you've betrayed yourself for liking them so much. "Contagion" is three forms on the floor that look as though they fit into each other. All three are rounded and pink, like pacifier nipples or phalluses; but the title refers to the chemical mechanics of virus transfer, as in AIDS. The message: Don't get close--you might get dead. The theme that modern life is untrustworthy continues throughout the show, though sometimes it is submerged in technique. For example, Julie Bozzi of Texas paints postcard-size landscapes with such incredible skill that they look like photographs. But of what? Forlorn desert scrubland (the title says it's a nuclear testing ground), or the side of the road as if seen from the passenger window of a passing car. You search in vain, leaning close to these paintings, for some virtue to redeem the talent and labor that went into them. But no: Life is a throwaway snapshot.
More worthwhile photographs hang on the wall behind Bozzi's paintings. These are by Frank Martin, also of Texas, and they are Texas-size, too (about four by five feet). These color enlargements are dominated by a brooding, looming darkness. "Invisible Trees," for example, shows scores of leafless branches reaching up from the bottom of the piece, overlapping in a complex network that almost looks like a multiple exposure.
But Martin has painted photographic chemicals all around the image, creating a black mass that enshrouds the teeming branches. The feeling is claustrophobic and grim, like a mistakenly buried person struggling with a coffin lid.
On a superficially brighter note, Californian Jamey Bair's shiny colorful paintings pulse with energy, like fireworks seen from a great distance. They look like flower patterns, but up close you see that each flower is a copy, at different angles, of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's sculpture "Wall Explosion," an image of merry violence. Once again, with these highly varnished, beautiful paintings, life lures you up close to smell its fragrance, then blows up in your face.
At the other end of the gallery from Bair's paintings hang Bailey Doogan's huge drawings, and you don't have to get close to them to feel the shock wave. Doogan is from Tucson, and one of her drawings is taken from an actual tragic event in that city. Called "C.A.N. Death," the mostly black-and-white drawing shows a two-year-old child lying on her back in a crib, obviously dead.
Faint traces of red appear here and there, and you can also see hints of muscle, rib and heart, as though the child's chest is transparent. (C.A.N. refers to Child Abuse and Neglect; the child in question had been beaten so severely many of her internal organs were pulverized.) But the most poignant part of the drawing is the pattern of little colorful ducks, barely visible at first, printed on the sheet the child lies on. A little comic relief from such grim sights comes from Robert Colescott, on the opposite wall. Colescott is a nationally known artist who lives in Tucson. He paints with oil on big canvases (seven by six feet) scenes so crammed with goofy images that there seems no background; figures turn into other figures or into strange objects that point to other strange objects, which themselves lead to more odd figures. "Corn Rose," for example, shows a large profile of George Washington with hair made out of rows of corn on the cob, but that's only part of the painting. A couple watches a naked black man and a white woman on TV; a snake on a table crawls toward four playing cards. And much more; stay tuned. In another painting the central figure is a man or woman with many eyes who cannot decide if he/she is black or white. There's a frantic energy to these paintings, made more so by the mock-naive, folk-artist style, that makes you want to grab them and say, "Wait! Stop! Hang on a second!" They're full of life, but it's the life of a surrealistic speed freak.
A different kind of vibrating energy shows in Susan Rothenberg's large painting, "Night Ride." You have to really step back from this giant canvas to see what's happening. Amid an edge-to-edge flurry of black, green and yellow brush strokes, you finally make out an indistinct figure either standing next to or riding a bike. The figure is repeated three times, overlapping with decreasing definition, with a strobe effect. One gets the impression of a monument wearing down in a desert sandstorm. What's it all about, Ozymandias? Don't go riding at night; you might get blindsided. One doubts if Bruce Kurtz went looking for artworks that reflect the sensibility that life's a bitch and then you die. In his gallery talk on the docent's tour, he emphasized technique and the works' art-historical resonances. (He did mention the ambiguity inherent in many of the pieces.) All the artists are consummate craftspeople; they know how to do what they do, and some of it is very complicated. That's what makes a lot of the pieces so compelling. Even the weak works, such as Dick Arentz's and Rick Dingus' photographs, reflect great care in their creation.
But the theme is there. Which means, unless I am paranoid, that our culture contains strong elements of sadism, fear and despair, all of them expertly wrapped in perfectly presentable packages, like poisoned candy.
The 1990 Phoenix Triennial will be at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue, through October 7.
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