Visual Arts

Losing Momentum

A few years ago, a friend of mine had a great idea for a Halloween costume. His plan was to find a framed painting of a woman's portrait, cut out the eyes, and peek through the holes. He would be the mysterious shifty-eyed spy seen in horror movies or the beginning sequence of Scooby-Doo. We thought everyone at the Halloween party would totally get it and think it was brilliant. Somehow, though, the whole concept got lost in translation. Out of desperation, my friend ended up holding a poster of Rocky Balboa in front of him, peering through the cut-out eyes. Needless to say, it bombed.

When I found out that Steven Yazzie, the It boy of the local art scene (and beyond), was putting together a solo show at the Heard Museum, I had high expectations. The combination of an up-and coming artist with a museum trying to make its mark in contemporary art sounded like a winner. But in "Draw Me a Picture," something's lost in translation — just as with my friend's Halloween costume.

An enrolled member of the Navajo (Dine) Nation, Yazzie is represented by galleries in Phoenix, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Kansas City, Missouri. And he's got a great reputation in town. Yazzie is young and talented. He gets a lot of attention — as evidenced by the large crowd that attended his January 27 reception and artist talk at the Heard. Known primarily for his painting, he creates technically skilled, colorful works that often incorporate a contemplative mystery fringed with humor — like fuzzy, cute bunny rabbits engaged in sometimes tragic and disturbing activities.

With that backdrop, Yazzie's most recent project did sound intriguing. In the summer of 2006, during a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Yazzie built a Soap Box Derby-like cart, attached an easel, and sketched landscapes while driving the contraption at a top speed of 20 miles per hour.

"The school supported an approach to new work, void of commercial and academic expectations. It was refreshing not to worry about product or having something to sell," Yazzie tells New Times. "This allowed me the time to experiment with new ideas, which is how the Drawing and Driving Project came about. It explores new perspectives of landscape, how we see it and experience it."

Sounds cool, right? The concept is full of potential — goofy, different and funny. The show, sadly, exhibits none of that.

"Draw Me a Picture" focuses on a recent trip to Monument Valley in Utah. Again, Yazzie saddled up on his art cart and sketched the landscape while jostling down bumpy dirt roads.

To be honest, the works created on the rides are not visually compelling or exciting. Instead, they are dry pieces of evidence that illustrate an artistic event; they don't successfully stand on their own. Yes, the idea behind the exhibition might draw you in, but the actual art presented won't hold your attention. Yazzie took a risk that didn't work.

For example, the centerpiece of the show is the art cart, which is displayed on a small stage. The wear and tear of some wild rides can be seen on the sides of the cart, and the homemade construction is evident. A small easel is mounted on the dashboard area. It's fun to see this piece of machinery, but installed as an art piece itself, it's more of a show-and-tell than a conceptual challenge.

Brown Noise Meditation is a large oil painting that uses an organic palette of chocolate, rust, and burgundy in horizontal striations. The painting evokes a sense of movement and it's attractive, but it looks like a safe abstract work you might find in a Scottsdale gallery — it has living-room potential. The same goes for another painting, Broken Monument, which is more figurative, with Cézanne-like brush strokes revealing glowing red rock formations against a bright turquoise sky. Again, it's pretty and nice, but boring.

Modified Drawing #1 and Modified Drawing #2 are large-scale copies of smaller drawings done while driving the cart. As expected, the landscape that Yazzie was trying to draw is completely obliterated. I appreciate that Yazzie abandoned the notion of producing a recognizable image, but the result really only amounts to a bunch of scribbles on a paper.

Perhaps the biggest misstep of the entire show is the video projection of the 1925 silent film Vanishing American. Filmed in Monument Valley, the movie is about the governmental mistreatment of American Indians. On the opposite wall plays Yazzie's short film, Draw Me a Picture, which documents a handful of his rides with camera work both from a spectator's vantage and from Yazzie's point of view. The idea is that somehow through Yazzie's driving and drawing, he is reclaiming the landscape and freeing it from its stereotypical "Indian-ness." Yazzie says curator Joe Baker suggested the inclusion of the silent film as a point of comparison. In any case, it feels like an afterthought — a quick and dirty way to politicize the exhibition. It's just too much of a stretch and is probably what caused my companion to blurt, "What does a Native American on a go-cart have to do with — anything?"

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi