"What a trip," mumbles a student leaving the upper gallery at Arizona State University's Nelson Fine Arts Center, and for once, the phrase is entirely appropriate. He has just finished looking at a display of work inspired by Lewis Carroll's nineteenth-century children's books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
Aided by magic mushrooms and looking-glass passageways, Alice went on one fantastic trip. The forty-plus artists in the ASU exhibition follow Alice down the rabbit hole, one way or another, and provide some of the best contemporary art you'll see in Phoenix.
Bernice Steinbaum, owner of the New York gallery that organized the exhibition, invited the artists to create work in response to Lewis' short novels. Although superficially nonsensical, the "Alice" stories are evidence of the repressions and contradictions of Victorian England. Lewis Carroll (a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a pious and by all accounts sexless cleric who unwittingly reveals in these books an inappropriate passion for young girls, as well as a latent taste for violence.
Since their publication in 1865 and 1871, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have been subjected to every possible analysis--metaphysical, political and Freudian. But visual interpretations have been sparse, and Steinbaum wanted to generate some.
"Alice made a good stepping-off point for a lot of ideas that haven't been visually interpreted since Disney," said the Steinbaum Gallery's director, Jody Krauss, referring to the 1951 animated film.
The gallery gave the artists complete freedom of expression--and they took advantage of it. Virtually every medium is represented, and the range of styles is mind-boggling, from traditional figurative painting through pure abstraction to conceptual text pieces. The artists build on Carroll's inadvertent exposes of nineteenth-century creepiness and use "Alice" as a vehicle or, more appropriately, as a mirror, to reflect similar problems in our own culture. The work they have produced seems closer to Grace Slick's interpretation of the Alice story in the psychedelic Sixties ballad "White Rabbit" than to Disney's sunny outlook. The artists declined to simply illustrate the fanciful tales, but delved into timely issues of drug abuse, the mindlessness of contemporary culture and the prejudice of the mainstream.
Faith Ringgold's painted quilt, for example, gives a twist to the story of Alice in the looking-glass world. Alice, black in this version, followed a white rabbit dressed in a vest and found herself in a land of monsters.
"I told them my name is Alice in Wonderland and that I am through the Looking-Glass. They told me there was an Alice here once but that she looked nothing like me," a text encircling the quilt reads. At the end, Alice tells her mother to watch for the rabbit that led her into this nightmarish land--it was last seen alive and well in Manhattan. In Ringgold's updated version, a white rabbit in a vest is likely to be a junk-bond trader.
"Heed the Warning" by Maureen Theresa Trotto is a further caution to the materialistic baby boom generation. Through a television screen, a psychedelic version of Wheel of Fortune appears on a checkered board. Alice stands on the wheel with one foot planted on "Tea Party" and the other on "Three Wishes." Half human, half insect, the commentator holds a microphone as a Barbie-doll rendition of Vanna White stands at the ready. Dollar bills and chess pieces litter the game.
Weak in construction but strong in conception, Trotto's piece stands in neat parallel to the plot of Through the Looking-Glass. The living chess pieces in Carroll's story are ignorant of the game's plan and cannot tell if they move by their own will or are pushed by invisible fingers. Are we equally oblivious to our movements through life? Are we led like sheep by the promises of Wheel of Fortune?
A surprising work is Native American painter Juane Quick-to-See Smith's sculpture "The Dream Child Moving Through a Land of Wonders Wild and New." Quick-to-See Smith throws artistic caution to the wind with this throwback-to-the-Sixties assemblage. Syringes, pill bottles, chocolate bars, Coke cans, alcohol bottles and a tiny jam box--all the addictions of our society--are pasted onto the chicken-wire frame of a small girl in a dishcloth skirt and patent leather shoes.
There are other welcome surprises in the exhibition. The late Keith Haring contributed one of the show's real standouts, done with his characteristic brushwork. In this enigmatic paper piece, Haring has painted the Caterpillar smoking his hookah on top of a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. In an accompanying statement, Haring noted that he first drew the Caterpillar meeting Alice when he was twelve. Out of all the mystical and hallucinogenic images in the story, he found this moment the most obvious and compelling. Also noteworthy is Rudolf Baranik's text painting at the front of the exhibition. It reads like an information panel until you suddenly realize it's a conceptual art piece. Several "dictionary" definitions record literary and artistic uses of the word "Alice." The last entry is the documentation for this very exhibition and recalls conceptual-art guru John Baldessari's painting that is nothing but text documenting its own exhibition at museums around the nation. Along with surprises, there are also bloopers. Red Grooms was the only one to submit an older work in response to Steinbaum's challenge. His uninspiring 1985 paper piece "American Geisha" has nothing to do with the theme, except that the figure is looking in a mirror. Give us a break, Red. The man who created a sculptural mockup of the entire city of Cleveland in five days can't take a little time to create a piece for "Alice"?