Mesa's new SunDust Gallery met the challenge head-on with the juried group exhibition "Expressive Light, Shadow and Form," on display through December 4. The upside of having a group show with such a nebulous theme is that the gallery gets to showcase a multitude of artists and styles. But the potential for problems is high, as this show makes clear.
As a whole, the exhibit is a Type A personality's worst nightmare: cluttered and disorganized. Paintings are stacked horizontally. Delicate sculptures are crammed into tight corners. Perhaps the worst offense is the handful of works from gallery regulars and previous shows interspersed with the "Expressive Light, Form and Shadow" submissions.
As a result, some of the brightest works don't get the attention they deserve. Robin Vandehei's Breakthrough, relegated to a tiny side wall, features the ceramic figure of a woman modeled after Renaissance-era marble statues. Strips of cloth cover her breasts and hips in a shield of modesty. At first glance it's just a pretty piece. Look closer and you'll see the Christian symbolism in the figure's open palms and the familiar pose in which she's displayed: head up, feet bound together, and arms outstretched at her sides. A halo of gold-leafed frame surrounds her.
What's more intriguing is the cloth shielding her eyes. In Renaissance art, this signified religious ignorance or avarice. On statues of Lady Justice, it means impartiality. The beauty is that the blindfold is left up to the individual viewer to interpret. One take is that it's a jab at religious politics that still keep women ignorant, preventing them from being priests or reading certain scriptures. Beats displaying a "God is coming and She's PISSED" bumper sticker.
Another standout is Augie Tantalo's A Study in Grey, which depicts Grand Canyon terrain in shades of gray. Each change in lighting and shadow is separated by a severe demarcation. The result is a lovely stained-glass patchwork of gray shapes that force the viewer to see this familiar landscape in a new way. The shading technique is one you learn in the most elementary 2D design class, but Tantalo makes it work by taking it to extremes.
Emily Palomino-Ortiz follows a similar approach in Unyielding, a cubist representation of a basic human figure. Palomino-Ortiz takes great care with boundaries, carving up the body and the background into dozens of individual shapes. Each plane is captured in a different shade of blue, from pale robin's egg to a deep blue-black. Careful brush strokes and crisp lines make it an eye-pleasing piece.
The same can't be said for every work on display. The colors in Shari Barry's Jazzy Rumba are so poorly blended that canary yellow and vibrant purple look muddy and flat. Perhaps this is because Barry opted to mix oil and acrylic paints, a tricky proposition even for a seasoned pro. The painting depicts jazz musicians and dancers modeled in a carefree, whimsical style; the kind of thing you'd see at a coffee shop or jazz bar. But instead of the crisp edges and rectilinear forms that make these modern jazz pieces accessible, Barry serves up thick paint globs and poorly executed figures outlined with what appears to be Sharpie marker.
Barry might've had better luck if she'd de-cluttered the canvas, as artist Ralph Muzio did with Portland #1. Inspired by Japanese sumi paintings, Muzio's drab landscape is punctuated by a few sparse black trees and blood red lines. It's a simple, meditative piece. Though it's impossible to tell whether it was intentional, Muzio makes a few missteps with his oil paint. It appears too thickly laid in some areas, creating a dirty smudge. In other sections, the raw canvas peeks through. Such flaws make the piece feel more human than its pristine Asian counterparts. That would be a detriment in certain circles, but it seems fitting at a fledgling gallery catering to up-and-coming local artists.
If there was such a thing as AADD — art attention deficit disorder — SunDust is suffering from it. The art is all over the place. Robin Vandehei's beatific wall relief struggles for room between a pastel dog and a large piece that looks like a child's finger-painting. Glassware and handmade scarves for sale are unwelcome distractions. Without clear focus and organization, this group exhibit deteriorates into cacophony — rather than the beautiful symphony of artists it could be.