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ASU Artists Put Contemporary Twist on Traditional Materials in "New Art Arizona"

A small house created with terracotta and porcelain sits crumbling in a courtyard at Shemer Art Center. It's the work of Jonah Amadeus Skurky-Thomas, one of five ASU master's of fine arts students featured in an exhibition titled "New Art Arizona." They're all recipients of this year's scholarship awards presented by Shemer Art Center and Arizona Artists Guild, a nonprofit for emerging and established artists working in various media.

The exhibition also includes works by Courtney Richter, Zachary John Valent, Dani Godreau, and Travis Rice. The common thread, according to guest curator Colleen Kelk Donohoe, is their innovative use of materials. Her curatorial statement for the show notes that "the artists in this exhibit all approach traditional materials with a contemporary twist, resulting in work that references both the rich history of craft and the innovation of contemporary art."

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Skurky-Thomas describes his recent work as a reflection of his generation's experience of the American dream. Using the motif of home, the artist explores ideas about work, family, and society. His Dissolution of the American Dream, the house that sits eroding atop a white column in the courtyard, conveys struggles faced in contemporary society by those seeking a dream that feels illusive or quixotic.

Its expressive force is magnified when you consider the history of the space where it sits. Shemer Art Center is actually a repurposed house, a portion of which goes all the way back to 1919 when developers built the first homes in the neighborhood they dubbed Arcadia. The center's own account notes that the developers went bust during the 1920s, and the neighborhood wasn't spared when our own modern-day downturn struck less than a decade ago.

Considering this context adds layers of meaning to another Skurky-Thomas work featured in "New Art Arizona." His 5 Steps installation -- which includes a student desk, a wall-mounted pocket filled with house stencils, and a trash container filled with paper houses -- conjures questions about the role home plays in our individual and collective lives. A framed flyer mounted near the desk, which has the headline "The American Dream: 5 Step Program," harkens back to the 5 stages of death and dying popularized by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross during the late 1960s.

The artist also creates high-fired porcelain works that reference functional pieces used in many homes, including vases, cups, and teapot -- demonstrating an exciting versatility of form and ability to infuse diverse works with a unified perspective.

Works featured in "New Art Arizona" are exhibited in three small rooms transformed into gallery spaces. The juxtaposition created by Donohoe's specific placement of these pieces within them magnifies the artworks' individual and collective power.

Most striking is the contrast between adjacent works by Zachary John Valent and Travis Rice in South Gallery III. Rice's acrylic and reflective vinyl Zing, featuring bold-colored geometrics built using 3-D modeling, screams modern. Valent's trio of fossilized telephones from pre-cell phone days shouts ancient. The contrast is startling, and effective.

There's a delightful irony, too. Despite the contemporary candy-coating colors in Rice's work, and the relatively new technology used to create them, they're fundamentally an assemblage of geometric shapes that hail from ancient times. Conversely, the objects seemingly fossilized by Valent are relatively recent inventions within the long arc of human history.

By showing them side by side, Donohoe invites viewers to consider the inherent fallacies within human conceptions of time.

Valent uses concrete and stain to give additional objects -- including incandescent light bulbs, a pair of metal-rim spectacles, and a textbook -- a fossilized appearance. According to the artist's statement, they're meant as "representations of common devices, now growing obsolete, signifying the advancement of our culture."

His Stratum, comprising 12 parallel wood columns filled with layers with worn paper, suggests not only the general trend within modern society for discarding perfectly functional older items in favor of new ones, but also the relegation of some very specific practices -- including reading, writing, and perhaps even journalism and creating handmade photographic images -- to the periphery of American life.

Dani Godreau's meticulous cut paper works channel the rich tradition of American craft while simultaneously affirming and questioning the roles women play in Western society. Her Casual Friday and Corporate Climbing, both pristine white circular pieces that mirror finely crocheted doilies of a century ago, use a form popularized by women to convey present day challenges faced by women in the workforce. In her artist's statement for this exhibition, Godreau notes that her work explores "female gender roles and sexuality on both a personal and societal level."

It's informed not only by childhood experiences with different expectations for girls and boys, but also modern day struggles faced by women whose work in undervalued. Godreau explains that her paper cuts are a celebration of "the domestic arts and the Western tradition of women's work in crochet, embroidery and quilting." Her China Patterns and China Patterns 2 pay homage to the origins of paper cut art in China.

Fiber works by Courtney Richter, whose weavings are made using contemporary materials including spray paint and shredded cellophane and traditional technique, reflect what Donohoe describes as "a marriage of tradition and modernity." By Richter's own account, they're an exploration of her perpetual struggle with the "cycle of self-improvement," although it's more evident in the titles of her work than the work itself.

In some cases, such as Agonizing Reappraisal, these titles are drawn from a letter written by Sol Lewitt to fellow artist Eva Hesse, according to Richter's artist statement for the exhibition. We'd love to see Richter experiment with additional materials, becoming bolder in the ways they're integrated into her work.

All five artists featured in "New Art Arizona" make innovative use of materials, deeply integrate art history into their work, and demonstrate a strong commitment to exploring contemporary social issues in pieces. Their work is relevant, intriguing, and fresh. We're eager to see more of it.

"New Art Arizona" continues through April 30. Find more information on the Shemer Art Center website.

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