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Gasp From the Past

A scene from Deserter by Leslie Hill and Helen Paris.

If "No Absolutes" -- ASU Art Museum's group exhibition showcasing artists working today in the Southwest -- is any indication of what is truly being produced in the region, maybe it's time to pack it up and move to Minnesota.

Jointly curated by the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, senior curator Heather Lineberry and curatorial assistant John Spiak, "No Absolutes" purports to illustrate postmodern skepticism about power structures, which have been systematically dismantled, according to Zeitlin's introductory essay in the exhibition's catalogue. "The boundaries of how we define race, gender, ethnicity and even species are [being] debated," she notes.

We are told that "[t]he artists in this exhibition approach the uncertainty of the moment in a variety of ways. For some, beauty functions as a solution to longing for meaning. Some even offer comfort in the face of that nihilism, some with metaphors of physical comfort and others with ideological or religious solace."

With very few exceptions, however, the nostalgia-laced work in "No Absolutes," culled from artists based in Arizona, California and Texas, offers little in the way of beauty, comfort or ideological or religious solace that I can detect. Most is perfectly in synch with the current chic for anything that even remotely smacks of Recent Retro -- including platform shoes, disco, macramé plant hangers, civil rights protest marches and multiculturalism. And most of it never measures up to Zeitlin's eloquent explication.

Top-heavy with weak '70s-style installations of mediocre craftsmanship and rife with clichéd longing for bygone times, the exhibition is basically a throwback to the grooviness of Art Movements Past, and not very well done, at that. Even its physical presentation screams "Not ready for prime time."

Starting on the museum's second floor, we are introduced to the show via an overly large room in which Connie Arismendi's work has been plopped. The space clearly overpowers the meager, slurpily sentimental offerings of this Texas artist, which include Tree of Life, a faux-finished wrought iron candelabra in the shape of a tree with roots sinking into a circle of polished, blue-hued rocks. The candles placed in the candelabra, which look suspiciously like Mexican votive candles, are wrapped with amateurishly drawn, inside-out ink-and-watercolors of what appear to be family and friends. A stone's throw away, Arismendi has planted live orchids in gold-tasseled velvet pillows on another circle of thistle seed-sprinkled rocks in The Pull of Life. Completing the banal trio of installations is Tú y Yo (You and I), in which a small wall shelf, draped with a chiffon scarf decorated with a discomfittingly kitschy painting of a hand holding a rose, is topped with an antique sugar bowl and creamer. All of Arismendi's installation pieces would be more appropriate for some third-rate alternative artists' space rather than a first-rate university museum.

Things continue to go downhill after rounding the corner of a wall separating Arismendi's work from Deserter, an unengaging video installation by ex-visiting ASU art professors Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, both of whom now reside in Europe. The Hill/Paris video piece, chock full of every Southwestern visual cliché known to woman or cowpoke, includes a barely revolving mechanical bull apparently left over from Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie starring John Travolta in the throes of a terrible Texas accent.

Deserter consists of four video monitors, perched on pedestals equipped with rearview mirrors, running interminably long footage of several artists (so we are advised by an accompanying wall text) who have come to Arizona, worked here, then left (they "desert" -- get it?). The first monitor shows a lone figure walking into a desert horizon, leaving behind footprints in the sand. The one next to it features a gingerly pirouetting girl in a bra and blindfold, flashing lots of tattooed flesh against monotonous sky. Another screen rolls snail-slow shots of a cowgirl in a 10-gallon hat in the back seat of a car (lest we forget the On the Road references), lighting a cigarette with a gun-shaped lighter. All the while, the final monitor highlights a woman in a red sequined dress with a bad wig and even worse makeup, standing on a block of ice next to a desert saguaro. The only things missing from this picture are a howling coyote and a kokopelli. It's a shame that Hill and Paris squandered so much technology to say so little.

The final second-floor gallery bay contains New Age Hypnotism,a large circular video projection by Los Angeles artist Colin Cook. Cook's goofy video affords some welcome respite from the paralysis that sets in after being subjected to the Arismendi and Hill/Paris installations. An adroit interweaving of religious zealotry, over-the-top televangelism, pop psychology ("get in touch with your inner child") and fortune-telling scams, Cook's piece is a head-on spoof of our society's naive, sometimes straightforwardly inane search for the spiritual -- and our willingness to try just about anything to infuse some meaning or purpose into our existence. It also keeps one guessing as to how the artist achieves the unsettling effect of a baby floating in watery sky (played by the artist sans clothes), who both physically and metaphorically ends up falling to earth with a thud.  

The third-floor exhibition offerings only deteriorate further. Dildo/Daedalus, a gargantuan, neon-pink wall drawing by Valley artist Bob Adams, visually infects the entire area. Starting with the words "dildo" and "Daedalus," Adams circles them (in Greek mythology, Daedalus was the overly clever artist-inventor who created the Labyrinth, of which he ultimately became a prisoner, and who came up with the bright idea of creating wax wings for his high-flying son Icarus). The artist then draws wandering lines to whatever word pops into his mind next. This yawn-inducing gambit is the stuff of '70s Conceptual art that wasn't very profound then and certainly hasn't gotten any more so with age.

In another Adams series, the artist pastes together collages from colored foil, glittery decals and rainbow-hued holographic stickers so wildly popular among prepubescent females these days. Again, retro reigns supreme as we pick out overdone happy faces, hippie daisies, butterflies and grinning, slant-eyed aliens. Adams' use of tried-and-true pop-cultural materials -- vaguely reminiscent of contemporary Japanese art that disconcertingly twists Hello Kitty and other teenybopper-style cartoon imagery -- fails to engage the viewer on any serious level. Only Spiritual Meat, an unexpected slab of sirloin fashioned from glittery red and magenta decal material, rates a second look or thought.

Vying for attention in the same area with all that flash, Phoenix artist-photographer Craig Smith dishes up large-scale, black-and-white silver gelatin prints of Icelandic icebergs he shot some years ago, together with a panoramic image of a wave. Smith's National Geographic-worthy images are what they are: passionless landscapes of an exotic environment. They have none of the chilling presence of Smith's later Physical Evidence Iris prints, in which he photographed crime-scene weapons and other forensic evidence of actual crimes committed in Phoenix -- or the almost religious overtones of his American baseball memorabilia series.

The true nadir of "No Absolutes," however, is reached after turning a corner and stumbling upon two more installations that look like bad theme-park dioramas. The first is an African-American barbershop setup by Joe Willie Smith of Phoenix (during the exhibition's opening, haircuts were actually performed on any willing takers). Like one of those maudlin Knott's Berry Farm scenarios of the Old West, Smith's barbershop crystallizes a moment in cultural history with black-and-white checkered floors, barber chairs, magazines strewn on a period coffee table and background audio of idle barbershop chatter against an undercurrent of music from a radio.

Smith attempts to rescue the piece from straight anthropological re-creation by hanging African masks on the walls among old civil rights and politics-related posters, including one, dated 1972, of a gun-toting "Black Pantheress" with a large Afro (its model is probably now some respectable soccer mom who drives a Suburban). A badly crafted wooden stick sculpture slathered with red, white and blue paint and pasted-on photos of black celebrities was also plunked into the scene -- apparently Smith's idea of some totemic tribute to Mother Africa. The three-legged sculpture, surrounded by mounds of hair clippings, sticks out, so to speak, like a bad haircut.

From there, the hapless viewer proceeds to Zafra: Pulso Dos Mil (roughly translated: Sugar Harvest: Pulse 2000)by Texas artist Luis Gutierrez, which might as well be named Cubalandia. Riding the crest of the craze for all things Cuban, Gutierrez has constructed an ofrenda, a shrinelike offering table commonly used in Mexico for honoring one's ancestors on the Day of the Dead. Gutierrez's ofrenda, however, is filled with haphazardly spray-painted plaster of Paris Santería effigies of orishas, popular Afro-Cuban deities masquerading as Catholic saints, to commemorate a felled sugar cane worker the artist has never met. On the floor of a room lined with sepia-toned documentary photos recently taken by Gutierrez of Cuba's antiquated sugar industry and sprinkled liberally with frayed references to Marxism, the artist has constructed a sand painting out of -- no surprise here -- granulated sugar. The resulting effort looks far too much like an earthwork by deceased Cuban artist Ana Mendieta for my taste. And we never really get any satisfying answer to the question of why the artist feels so compelled to honor someone he never knew; because of this, the piece ultimately comes off as straightforwardly opportunistic rather than sincerely commemorative.

Maybe I've gotten spoiled. I'm used to ASU Art Museum organizing well-selected, world-class exhibitions that have put Arizona on the international art-world map. Unfortunately, "No Absolutes" doesn't even begin to live up to its own very high standards. Perhaps the bald failure of this regional exhibition can be chalked up to joint curatorial effort. Curating by committee, a risky venture at best, can often lead to splintered vision, anemic selections and compromised quality, as seems to have been the case with this show.  

Whatever the cause, ASU Art Museum, until now, has had a well-deserved reputation for being a groundbreaking cultural institution known for constantly raising the aesthetic bar. In the case of "No Absolutes," it unexpectedly limboed under it.


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