Visual Arts

Minimal Effort

What a difference almost a decade makes in the ever-morphing world of contemporary art. I can really appreciate this fact when I think about the very first article I wrote for New Times. It was a review of "Alternative Identities," the 1993 Triennial at Phoenix Art Museum curated by Bruce Kurtz, then PAM's curator of contemporary art. It was the same year that L.A. artist Daniel Martinez was passing out admission buttons to New York's Whitney Biennial that proclaimed, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white."

Like the Whitney Biennial, Phoenix's '93 regional Triennial was cobbled together when multiculturalism, pluralism, inclusion of The Marginalized (whether marked by race, gender, sexual orientation, religious proclivity or disability) and, of course, political correctness gripped the contemporary art world. Ergo, a strange stew of work appeared in PAM's show that year, including tightly rendered drawings of butt plugs and cock rings, pantyhose fashioned into bondage devices, AIDS-infected bodily fluids encased in resin and a lot of pretty amateurish installation art dealing with racial issues.

The times, they are certainly a-changin', to misquote Mr. Dylan, and mercifully bodily fluids used as art materials have become passé. So don't expect to be shocked, offended or repulsed by any of the art in "Phoenix Triennial 2001," showing through September 23 at PAM.

In fact, this year's Triennial, which showcases the work of artists from California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and, for the first time, Mexico, is a pleasant surprise. The exhibition, organized by newly arrived curator of modern and contemporary art Brady Roberts, together with Beverly Adams, curator of Latin American art, is truly a welcome respite from the second-rate, prepackaged shows the museum has fed us over the past several years (excluding, of course, the unsung though spectacular "Copper As Canvas" show curated by PAM chief curator Michael Komanecky, which was mysteriously given short shrift by PAM's PR department in favor of its terminally mediocre import, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt").

Overall, "Phoenix Triennial 2001" seems to reflect the present infatuation of artists in the Southwest with modernist precepts of formalism, though some artists, like L.A.'s Rubén Ortiz-Torres and Mexico's Daniela Rossell, have not abandoned references to classic art-historical genres. A fair share of the materials-driven work chosen by Brady and Adams specifically revisits minimalism, a movement hatched from the fertilized egg of formalism laid by mid-century art critic Clement Greenberg, the champion of dripmeister Jackson Pollock. Greenberg pushed the theory that form -- be it the flatness of paint on canvas or the volumetric quality of a sculpture -- and not content was all that really mattered in art. Coldly logical and rabidly formulaic, this kind of formalism unwittingly ended up birthing minimalism in the mid-'60s, a radically reductive, very humorless kind of art that seemed to exorcise any trace of representation, imitation or humanity from a goodly chunk of the work produced during that period.

Rife with references to the representational, the cultural and the human, tinged with overt playfulness and a dab of mordant irony so characteristic of our post-modern times, the current Triennial's minimalism-inspired work actually breathes some life into the traditionally moribund corpse of the original '60s movement. This dazzling feat of resurrection is performed by consciously avoiding the dehumanizing sterility (and often acute tedium) so typical of its predecessor.

Besides all that, this show just plain looks good, sucking us in with the pure, unadulterated sensuality of the assembled art, all thoughtfully and professionally presented.

As you enter the Steele Gallery, you are slammed with the sight of Jacob Hashimoto's Swell, a mammoth 30-by-20-foot sculptural installation that looks like the product of a mating between a madman's skateboard ramp and a Disneyesque Matterhorn -- completely covered with off-white wall-to-wall carpeting. "Carpet is so disposable," Hashimoto pointed out to me. "It covers so many flaws. It's so Marilyn Monroe." Swell's implausibly steep hills beg to be scaled. (Apparently, museum director Jim Ballinger succumbed to the urge on one of the show's opening nights in suit, tie and socks, only to slide, then tumble unceremoniously from the piece's heights.)

Hashimoto's inescapable allusions to iconic Southern California pop culture now infecting the rest of the world are effectively offset by Aster, a huge, dangling Sputnik of a sculpture fashioned by Mexico City artist Thomas Glassford from glowing fluorescent tubes. Beneath it, Partitura, two Donald Judd-like panels constructed of pearly silver and custom rose-colored anodized metal, commonly used by upper-middle-class Mexicans for garage doors and façades on buildings, hang in counterpoint to the exploding sculpture's greenish flush. To the left, both works are captured and repeated in the warped reflection of Nine Slat Mirror, a panel woven from mirrored acrylic strips, while on a back wall a series of heavily made-up, come-hither eyes in various stages of opening and closing by Tempe's Jon Haddock beckon ambiguously. Only later I discovered that the images are the eyes of now-legendary black porn queen Anna Amore, harvested by Haddock from the Internet.

As you head down a central path in the gallery, Joseph Havel's dramatically lit Lost looms in the distance like a long-forgotten Mayan stele. Up close, you discover the purported monument is actually a huge panel to which Havel and a group of volunteer assistants have pinned more than 20,000 custom-manufactured taffeta shirt labels, each bearing the word "lost." The surface of the work seems to flutter as you walk from one end of it to the other, like a massive gathering of twitching butterflies.

But before you can get to Havel's panel, your attention is intercepted by a side room of enormous "canvases" by San Antonio-based Todd Brandt that turn out to be hundreds of translucent Fuji film canisters slavishly affixed in a grid pattern to panels primed with electric pink, yellow, orange and green industrial paint. When viewed through the canisters, the teeth-jarring colors diffuse into soft pastels, while the panels' surfaces create optical illusions of depth and movement.

Photography and video work also make their marks in this year's Triennial. Three images from Rubén Ortiz-Torres' series Adoration of the Magi take off on the uniquely Mexican version of the Biblical theme in large-scale color photographs of overdecorated booths hawking the photographic services of multicolored Magi that are set up annually in Mexico City's Alameda Park. Like European court painters in centuries past, Ortiz-Torres appears with his camera in several of the images. Also not to be missed are Daniela Rossell's environmental portraits of members of Mexico's richest and most powerful family dynasties -- including the niece of ex-Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the daughter of a well-known PRI politician besotted with the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. They're shot in flashy, over-the-top home settings that make the sets of Dallas look like rank hovels and are weirdly suggestive of natural history museum dioramas. Another must-see is Peter Sarkisian's video installation, Hands of a Similar Man, a piece worth spending time on.

Not all of the work in PAM's show is as engaging as these, however. Salomón Huerta's pared-down, robotically anonymous figurative work strikes me as uncomfortably out of place. Deborah Hede's pastels on paper are too evocative of the clinical vacuity so identified with minimalism, while the poured resin paintings of Jason Eoff and the diamond-dusted graphic paintings of Philip Argent reek unmistakably of the simply decorative.

In spite of its weaker links, "Phoenix Triennial 2001" is a fairly accurate and noteworthy screenshot of what is being created by artists in the Southwest and Mexico at this point in time. The universality of the exhibition's work is potent evidence of the inexorable movement toward cultural homogenization being wrought by corporate globalization. This is art that can't be easily pigeonholed by geography or specific culture, unlike the contemporary art of Mexico in the late '80s and early '90s, or the politically correct, often sermonizing output of U.S. artists 10 years ago. Like it or not, Fuji film canisters, aluminum siding, theme parks and TV soap operas, not to mention the commercializing of Christian holidays, are now worldwide and, from the looks of this show, probably here to stay. "Phoenix Triennial 2001"

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Kathleen Vanesian