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Beyond the Norm

Several years ago, I moved to Chicago. Most of the friends I made had never traveled west of Omaha, so they liked to tease me for being a cowpoke from Arizona. One so-called pal wondered if I missed my pet tumbleweed. Another asked if I grew up next to the...
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Several years ago, I moved to Chicago. Most of the friends I made had never traveled west of Omaha, so they liked to tease me for being a cowpoke from Arizona. One so-called pal wondered if I missed my pet tumbleweed. Another asked if I grew up next to the Acme Dynamite Company and watched Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner from my bedroom window (it was funny the first 15 times, but not really after that).

I returned home, eventually, and have not encountered many tumbleweeds since my return. Unfortunately, though, if my friends visited me here and we hit up some local photo shows, we would, in fact, be inundated with images of cacti, dusty outhouses, and Photoshop-gone-wrong desert landscapes. Then they would take their smug mugs back to the Windy City with confirmed notions about my hometown.

If only my buddies could check out "Latent Image: Contemporary Photography in Arizona" at Mesa Contemporary Arts. From hand-painted work and alternative processes to digital imagery and photojournalism, the heavy-hitting lineup of 15 established and emerging Arizona photographers bypasses the ubiquitous desert for more original turf. I didn't find oversaturated mountain vistas, pics of howling coyotes, and, aside from local photography hero and ASU professor Mark Klett's deliberate time studies (and trust me, he can get away with them), there aren't any saguaros raising their arms on high.

It's clear that I don't love gratuitous prickly pear. Nor am I a big fan of digital photography. Not enough shutterbugs working in this style employ the "less is more" approach. However, Dayvid LeMmon and Dean Terasaki use Photoshop for good, not evil, in crafting their trippy photo collages.

LeMmon, a 23-year-old native Phoenician who ditched the silver chemistry for pixels three years ago, manipulates and layers up to 15 images in crafting his abstract black-and-white compositions. Without, a companion piece to Within, features a beautiful brunette whose eyes are censored by a black bar. The babe, juxtaposed against a scratchy, surreal landscape dotted with shanties, coaxes us to take a closer look as she juts out of the two-dimensional plane.

Terasaki, a veteran photographer with a deep interest in genealogy and history, traveled to Guangdong, China, to shoot the foundational images for his wonderfully vibrant photo montages. His beautiful color works in this show comment on modern technology bumping into and taking over sacred religious traditions. My favorite Terasaki image, The Arrival, features seamlessly superimposed Buddha statues greeting an arriving light-rail train at the station.

Of all of the work in the exhibition, I sensed the strongest Arizona influence in Kate Breaky's larger-than-life, unconventional portraits of dead animals. The Tucson-based artist uses a single, silver-based photographic image and then applies multiple coatings of colored paint, oil, and pencil until the substances commingle with the original picture. One of the best, The Kiss, shows two fallen fowl with puckered beaks, posed as though they're about to smooch. Two red roses painted in pedantic detail mirror the two deceased figures at the bottom of the frame. I felt this work, along with the accompanying dead fox and rabbit portraits, acted as truthful commentaries on the harsh landscape and the struggle for survival of our native wildlife.

Rounding out the show are Lisa Takata's bromoil prints, inspired by the Pictorialist movement. The early-1900s process requires the bleaching of a traditional darkroom print until the image nearly disappears, and can be rendered again during a laborious re-inking exercise. The Phoenix-based artist extraordinaire, who works in just about every art medium, creates stillness in her intimate, 4-by-6-inch images. The most evocative work depicts a ghost-like boy, etched out from the past by multiple layers of oil-based pigment, standing against a dilapidated urban backdrop. The piece looks like a 200-year-old charcoal drawing; I wanted to reach out to the lonely boy.

Curators Mike Goodwin and Tiffany Fairall did a terrific job on this show. I hope MCA's commitment to statewide artists continues so that viewers can get a refreshingly atypical view of our state.

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