Visual Arts

Class Project

One indication of the Valley art scene's healthy pulse is the proliferation of small, worthwhile shows in unexpected places. Recently, the lower level of the Tempe Public Library has housed several such treats, the most recent of which features works by six artists participating in the city's Studio Artist Program.

The program, a partnership between the City of Tempe and Tempe Elementary School District #3, provides studio space for a select group of local artists, who, in exchange, teach art classes to fourth- and fifth-graders in the Tempe public schools. Judging by the results on display at the library, as curated by Andrea Hanley of Tempe's Cultural Services Division, the program is one of those rare partnerships that actually benefits everyone involved, and then some. The artists get a place to work and a chance to share what they know with young minds, and the students get real art education -- an endangered species in the public schools.

The main attraction is the work of the artists; each piece is accompanied by a statement, a brief description of the artist's lesson for the children, and a sample of the children's work. The weakest aspect is invariably the artist's written statement; skim these and move on. (Artists writing about their own art often produce unwittingly masturbatory exercises in imprecision. Then again, writers are not asked to draw pictures explaining their work, so perhaps the problem lies not so much with the artists themselves as with the practice.)

Emily Puthoff, who recently had a solo show at eye lounge and is completing her MFA in sculpture at ASU, contributes an artist's book that is a long accordion of images from around the world, collected one morning when she was chronicling the sunrise on the Internet. The book is both simple and engaging; even the spare title, Now Here, speaks volumes about our actual/virtual world. When is now? Where is here? And how strange that by pushing the words a little closer together, you get "nowhere."

Elena Sniezek, also a member of eye lounge and an art teacher at Desert Shadows Elementary in Paradise Valley, is represented by four sculptures of books titled Temporal Truths. Each book is made of salt and resin, resulting in solid, crystalline forms that look almost edible, and each is inscribed with a single word: courage, wisdom, temperance, justice. Her choice of salt, a commonplace material with multiple uses and meanings, makes me think of Joseph Beuys' rough alchemy, and there's something synergistically appealing about these mineral volumes. People tend to linger alongside the glass cases that contain them.

Painter Candice Eisenfeld looks to her home state of Texas for inspiration in her new work, painting the Southwestern landscape of imagination. This is Texas through the eyes of Turner, all dreamy, nearly abstract sepia mist broken by wispy trees. The figurative portions are set off by larger sections of burnished blood-red swirls that suggest the unconscious out of which these remembered landscapes emerge. Eisenfeld's painstaking varnishing process, practically a lost art, gives her paintings a distinctive and seductive satin sheen.

Darleen Romeo-Deal is a fiber artist with roots in fashion design. One of her contributions -- a weird little fiber sculpture of a creature that is part cat, part baby -- is disturbing in a rewarding kind of way. It has the impact that her other pieces on display here -- mostly well-made faces that look as if they're straining to burst through the material from which they're woven -- strive for but don't attain.

Deborah Salac-Ashforth, a member of the MARS artists group, works mostly with cloth and clothing (for her lesson, she explained the significance of quilt patterns and had the children sew their own squares) but, for this exhibition, she's chosen two large panoramic photographs, blown up to near graininess. One, Upon Coming Home, shows a white-haired man in a tweed cap at the far left of the frame, surveying a landscape; his expression is a mix of emotions that's hard to read.

The second photograph, Litost: My Past Escapes Me, is a benign image of trees, fields and gray sky that could be any number of places. Like Eisenfeld does in her Texas paintings, Salac-Ashforth explores how we see the landscapes that shape us. But where Eisenfeld turns her gaze inward, Salac-Ashforth looks out as well, using the actual landscape to comment on memory and identity.

Last -- but least only in size -- are Mary Dieterich's tiny colorful tapestries. The pieces are mostly floral and vegetable: sunflowers, poppies, bananas and a luminous still life reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch painting. There's also one landscape, in which a handful of single white stitches stand out as stars on a deep blue field. Dieterich was originally trained as a scientific illustrator, which, looking at her precise, intricate work, makes sense, and she has served for some years now as a textile consultant for the Heard Museum. With her modern eye, she's reclaiming as art what is too often dismissed as craft, an undertaking that has obvious feminist implications.

It's interesting, and fitting, that there are feminist implications of a different stripe in the work that Emily Puthoff is doing: She's staking her claim to relatively new media that are often perceived, wrongly but nevertheless, as toys for boys. Those fourth- and fifth-grade kids would do well to learn from these artists' examples, as well as their lessons.

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Deborah Sussman Susser