The Souper Dress by artist unknown
The Souper Dress by artist unknown
Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

"Paper!" at Phoenix Art Museum Is One Giant Missed Opportunity

The current exhibition "Paper!" at Phoenix Art Museum includes a piece by contemporary artist Jasper Johns called The Critic Sees, a 1967 silkscreen in which the embossed word "mouth" peers through a pair of embossed paper glasses — a punny, postmodern poke at all talk and no vision.

Here's what those glasses are looking at: the back side of a century-old Japanese folding screen, a counter-height plexiglass case housing a 300-year-old Chinese handscroll, and two Maynard Dixon sketches on the wall across the room.

Off to one side, bright paper dresses hang — one printed with familiar Campbell's soup labels and another bearing a political campaign ad. A Nixon dress hangs elsewhere in the gallery, closer to huge 19th-century art posters, including Steinlen's familiar Chat Noir and a couple by Toulouse-Lautrec.


New Times art review

Have you put it all together? Paper dresses? Paper eyeglasses? Paper posters? Scrolls and screens? Sure enough, it's happened. Paper's a novelty.

This might be the part where I curse the Kindle and wax nostalgic about the smell of books and the tactile thrill of turning pages. But Hugh Laurie is "reading" Great Expectations to me through my earbuds during visits to the Y, so I'm not complaining. Paper itself is great. So is Hugh Laurie.

PAM's show? Not so great. To me, it feels like a consolation prize for those of us stuck in Phoenix all summer. Sloppy seconds, as usual.

You should know that this exhibition is huge — all-encompassing, even — although I'm not sure what, exactly, it encompasses besides a vague paper theme. It is an exhibition with, on, and about paper. Beyond that, I don't see any curatorial efforts, which is disappointing coming from our city's major art museum. Instead, a collaboration of the museum's curators, its Lemon Art Research Library, and its Education Department cleared out the paper-related contents of the museum's permanent collection and stuck them on display. Even the show's signage is glaring and flawed, forced, and perhaps a little cheesy, with contrived sticky notes throughout reading "inspiration" and "creativity" in fonts resembling handwriting. Overall, "Paper!" feels like a giant missed opportunity. How about a show that focuses solely on printmaking? That would be interesting and relevant and . . . reined in.

That said, there's plenty worth seeing here, including work from Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Rufino Tamaya, Keith Haring, Warhol, Munch, Calder, Rauschenberg, Rivera, and Escher.

Seeing an Escher reproduction not in a calendar is like finding a buried treasure, of which there are quite a few here, as this show is worth more for its parts than the sum of them.

Tusconan Michael Cajero's raku-influenced papier-mâché with wire armature sculptures definitely make my fave five. They're dark and sharp and ragged — menacing and playful at the same time. Or in the case of his Gavina, heavy and fragile at once, as a reed-thin female form dressed in tatters, reminiscent of Donatello's Mary Magdalene, hauls buckets. Cajero captures movement in his forms, the bare feet of the burdened woman in mid-step, the curving of a dog's spine when backed into a corner, a crouch, a pounce. That movement is echoed powerfully on the wall with his hanging sculpture, Jumping Man. Cajero uses recycled gift wrap and cardboard, but his work has a sculpted bronze quality that still appears as though its beautiful ugliness could explode or disintegrate at any moment.

Elsewhere there are landscapes. Scrolls are easy to not see, but Liu Guosong's Which Is Earth? (1969) is a departure worth a long look. It's a meditation on man's landing on the moon, with abstract images of what floats in space.

Woodblock prints on paper by father Hiroshi Yoshida and son Toshi Yoshida, whose Ship Rock (1984) are a lovely homage to that magically weird landscape between Gallup and Durango. Toshi Yoshida captures the exact yellow of the grasses of that land in which his herd of tiny horses grazes. Hiroshi Yoshida's Grand Canyon (1925) is just plain pretty. (That blue!) The print gives the canyon a melting, ephemeral quality, which may be geologically accurate. But instead of thinking about its accuracy, you may want to search for text incorporated into this tiny print.

Tony Foster's From Point Sublime Looking ESE (2004) is a panoramic of the Grand Crayon in watercolor and pencil on paper. Foster has written a narrative — part weather log, part diary — about its creation along the bottom of the six-foot piece. In fact, Foster has penciled notes throughout the painting. Like Hiroshi Yoshida, Foster finds the blue that seems particular to our canyon skies — and, yes, it's sublime. In his narrative, he writes, "A storm develops providing exactly the sky I need."

Still ticking off the landscapes, don't miss the wall of George Elbert Burr's etchings, Winter, 10 states. Burr's life and work is relevant to us here in the West. These 10 images of a single tree are stark, quiet, and strong. There's also an image of Burr etching away as well as his Colorado horizons.

Elsewhere in the show, museum signage serves as a printmaking primer that explains the differences between paintings and drawings and the many complicated print processes.

Three massive woodcut prints are installation at its finest, which is a tough feat in a show as clunky and loud in places as "Paper!" 

Everything in the room works together purposefully, even as other works tend to clash and distract. These three deserve thoughtful attention: Peter Drake's Slice (1987), Artemio Rodriguez's Triumph of Death (2007) — a mural, really, in which nine individual prints compose the bigger picture) — and Leonard Baskin's Everyman (1960) command and overpower the space.

There is so much worth spending time with here, and I haven't even talked about Frank Martin's or Craig Smith's large photographs or the sociopolitical works by noted Mexican printmakers like José Guadalupe Posada, Leopoldo Méndez, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. There's also so much that seems superfluous and/or nonsensical. I'm over the paper dresses, for one, and the fashion element (a Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel cigarette shirt?) amounts to little more than department store mannequins installed near the Lichtensteins.

The sheer magnitude of PAM's basement-cleaning is exhausting, but so is the prospect of the rest of June, July, and August. If we're lucky, nighttime temperatures will drop back into the 70s by the end of September, and life in the desert should make sense again.


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