OH DAB, POOR DAB
Four recent exhibitions at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, all opening on the same night, sent me scurrying to my Roget's Thesaurus, searching for the right word to describe this melange, this pastiche, this potpourri, this gallimaufry, this hodgepodge--that's it!--of art. One exhibition showed a single work each by 24 Arizona artists. In another, Will Saunders offered works in several different media. Upstairs, Lew Davis showed stuff in totally different styles. And Laurie Lundquist combined plants with machinery, of all things, in her art.
A hodgepodge (it says in my thesaurus) is a collection of widely disparate elements. The word carries negative connotations, so it definitely applies here--with one exception: Laurie Lundquist's work.
When I arrived at the SCA a half-hour after opening time, the Atrium was crowded, but almost nobody was contemplating art; they were grazing the edible melange of the buffet and sitting down to eat. They had their priorities lined up. Instead of sampling the food (Cap'n Dave's job), I went straight over to the west wall of the Atrium to view "Tabula Rasa." That's Latin for "blank tablet," but in Scottsdale Center lingo it means "We'll take anything." "Tabula Rasa," organized by the Scottsdale Cultural Council's opening-night gala committee, was an exhibition of 24 works by 24 artists, each priced at $1,000, as a benefit for the Scottsdale Cultural Council. Almost all were paintings (there was one metal relief), and they were hung close together, salon style, as if afraid to stand out from the crowd. As I ranged back and forth scribbling notes, a young woman wordlessly approached me and handed me something. It was an Intent to Purchase card. She looked disappointed when I handed it back. She must have thought I actually wanted to buy some of these things. But nothing there really grabbed my attention. Mostly I saw familiar names bound to familiar themes, a checklist of popular Arizona artists. Merrill Mahaffey: canyon walls done in a more painterly, messier way than his earlier super-realist work. Even he must be getting bored with his own style. Masoud Yasami: airbrushed, balancing geometric forms. Didn't I see this on the cover of Omni?
Robert McCall: spaceships and blue sky. Like the cover of a sci-fi novel found in a used bookstore. Mark McDowell: piled up banalities. Three painted square cards with images on them are stuck to a painted bulletin board by painted pushpins. So what. Anne Coe: "Gila Monster Race, Finish Line." The title says it all. What is it about Arizona artists that they want to anthropomorphize every poor animal in the landscape? You can't turn around without bumping into a dog dressed up as a sheriff, or a coyote shooting pool. Call the Humane Society!
Dan Namingha, Ed Mell, Jeff Low, Louise McCall and all the rest reminded me of something photographer Arthur Tress once said about photography, but it applies to the art scene in general: "The pictorialist, whether avant-garde or conservative, pleases us with aesthetically correct composition--but where are the photographs we can pray to, that will make us well again, or scare hell out of us?" Well, they weren't on that wall, so I drifted over to the New Directions Gallery--actually a wide hallway--where Will Saunders was showing "Collages-Boxes-Planks-Traps." The collages are small, and they all use a T-form as the main motif. Here, T is for trite. What Saunders should have done was put all the collages together in one piece. Then he might have had something. The planks are black-painted two-by-eights with scrap metal and other debris fastened to them, some festooned with rope. "Man of Sorrows" has, you guessed it, big nails sticking out all over it. You'd think Jesus had enough burdens to carry around. Another one, called "Infidel," looks like nothing so much as an anorexic Rastafarian, with its wild tangle of rope at the "head." The boxes and traps are simply truncated planks with a few rusted variations. Although so-called "junk" enjoys a respected place in modern art, these pieces offer nothing for aesthetic appreciation. Robert Rauschenberg could make art out of cardboard; Saunders makes art that tastes like cardboard. I felt embarrassed for taking so much time with it, thinking that at any moment someone would approach me and ask curiously, "What are you looking at?" But I got away without being caught, and went upstairs to the Mezzanine Gallery to see the Lew Davis exhibition. Called "`The Negro in America's Wars' and Other Major Paintings," this show is interesting primarily for local historical reasons. It also extends the hodgepodge theme.
Davis worked in three different styles during his lifetime. In the early Forties, he was the only white enlisted man at Fort Huachuca. While there, he did some silkscreen posters for the army, some of which are displayed here. They are warnings and admonitions of the "Loose Lips Sink Ships" variety, but the twist is that they depict only black soldiers. Though the posters were intended seriously, time has made them charming.
He also did three big murals in the broad, allegorical WPA style. "The Negro in America's Wars" shows black men fighting from Revolutionary times to World War II, spread horizontally along the wall. Another mural is reproduced life-size in a giant photograph framed in wood, memorializing the founding of Fort Huachuca.
The final section of Davis' work shows abstract paintings done between the late Fifties and early Seventies. These are dominated by pastel-colored geometric shapes connected by thin black lines, and they all look like Christmas cards from the Eisenhower era. Sweet as Kool-Aid, and just as nourishing. Davis, often referred to as "the Dean of Arizona artists," died before he could start painting kachinas and coyotes.
Bewildered by gallimaufry, I stumbled out onto the balcony of the Mezzanine. Where were the artworks I could pray to, that would make me well, et cetera? I looked down over the stairway railing. Outside the Lower Gallery I saw a strange device: two mechanical arms rhythmically dipping two burlap-bound rosebushes into a tank of water--just barely, and just for a moment. Over and over. If I were a plant, I'd feel outraged at this torture. But I was an unfeeling human and felt delighted. This must be Laurie Lundquist's "Hanging Gardens." I headed downstairs. Inside the gallery were more pieces combining plants and machinery. They are all about frustration and control. Consider "Tantalus," for example. Tantalus, as we all know after we look it up, was a Phrygian king who was condemned to remain in Tartarus, chin-deep in water, with fruit-laden branches hanging above his head; whenever he tried to drink or eat, the water and fruit receded out of reach.
Lundquist's "Tantalus" is an upside-down Y-shaped pendulum with a funnel at the top and two roses stuck in tubes at the bottom. They slowly swing above a tank of water, so close to the surface you probably couldn't slip a piece of paper between the flowers and their sustenance. "System for Satisfying Needs" uses piston action to dip the naked roots of hyacinths and ferns into a water tank, where they float for a moment like women washing their hair, only to be jerked out again. "Secret Garden" shows two huge test tubes, topped by cat's claw vine, suspended a couple of feet above a large rectangular pile of rich soil.
All these odd artworks create incredible tension in the viewer. You want to dunk the roses, unplug the machines, smash the test tubes, give the plants what they need.
But "Hanging Garden," the centerpiece of the exhibit, is an exception to the frustration theme, and steals the show. Two long troughs hold pine seedlings. Near the ceiling, two other troughs hold water. Between them Lundquist has strung Venetian blind cord. Water runs continuously down the cord, wets the plants, drains out into tanks, which then pump the water back up to the ceiling again.
Since the cord doesn't really absorb the water, you can see it glistening and sparkling as it rushes down. It's like walking between two curtains of controlled rain; it's as if someone had combed the rain into individual strands. I felt the tension draining out as nearly all my senses were soothed: the quiet rush of water, the earthy smell of a nursery, the pleasing sight of falling rain. These feelings finally made my visit to the SCA worthwhile.
"Tabula Rasa," Will Saunders' "Collages-Boxes-Planks-Traps," Lew Davis' "`The Negro in America's Wars' and Other Major Paintings," and Laurie Lundquist's "Hanging Gardens" all continue through November 11 at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7383 Scottsdale Mall.
Lew Davis, often referred to as "the Dean of Arizona artists," died before he could start painting kachinas and coyotes.
"Tabula Rasa" is Latin for "blank tablet," but in Scottsdale Center lingo it means "We'll take anything."
Almost nobody was contemplating art; they were grazing the buffet and sitting down to eat. They had their priorities lined up.
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