Visual Arts

Provincial Scatology

It's no secret that the identity of "Arizona" or "Southwest" art has been changing for some time now. As the urban forces that molded the cultures of other international cities have begun to affect our own, the art being made here has become as varied and complex as the works in "Another Arizona," the current exhibition at Arizona State University's Art Museum.

The museum's senior curator, Heather Sealy Lineberry, points out in the show's gallery guide that you won't find any howling coyotes or cowboys chasing Indians here. And there aren't any glowing scenes of lost American spaces and ideals. The show's aim, she says, "was to get beyond the stereotypical, and present a broader view of the kind of art being made by artists in Arizona."

It also was conceived to introduce Arizona artists to curators outside the state.

Unlike the museum's past all-Arizona shows--"Here and Now" and "Valley Artists"--this one was selected by a jury which, in addition to Lineberry and the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, included Californians Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Enrique Chagoya, a professor at Stanford University.

The panel chose the 23 Arizonans in the exhibition from a pool of nearly 360 who had submitted slides.

Lineberry says the idea of inviting outside jurors arose during discussions the museum held with area artists during the past few years. "I think the artists saw this as a way of getting a fresh view and overcoming some of our own biases about work," Lineberry says.

The assumption is that fresh eyes mean fresh opportunities for overlooked artists. But that isn't necessarily so. Art juries often wind up simply confirming an institution's outlook, taste and direction. And that appears to be what occurred here.

Schimmel, who curated MOCA's large, current survey of performance art, has a proven appetite for images and approaches with a conceptual edge--as do Chagoya and Zeitlin. They also have a soft spot for works freighted with social and political messages.

Like most juried exhibitions, "Another Arizona" is a mishmash of quality and works. Yet a couple of trends are worth noting.

While the show contains a smattering of paintings and sculpture, it emphasizes works in new formats and new media. Some take the form of installations; others derive from the manipulation of new technologies and processes. Many are laden with the increasingly popular notion that ideas and messages make the art, and that self-consciousness has its own value.

Lineberry did a fine job of grouping the works. She concentrated the larger art installations at the old museum site at Matthews Center and smaller works in upper museum galleries at the Nelson Fine Arts Center.

Among the highlights at Matthews is Al Price's "Presidential Busts"--another in his continuing series of mechanized sculptures. The rickety charm of their buzzing, whirring and jangling often seems to be an elaborate ruse for a more subtle show of projected images, lights and shadows. In this piece, a motorized, cagelike arm--about 10 feet long--circles the room on two rolling legs. As it orbits, a small light at the end of the arm passes within inches of four equally spaced presidential busts made from the same wire-cage material.

It's tough to tell which presidents are here. But their identity doesn't seem to be the issue. The machine amounts to a whimsical tour of history's cyclical effect on presidential and other power images: Their shadows loom large and clear in the close glare of the spotlight. Then they diminish and dim until the light of future interest comes round again.

Price's challenge has always been to control the setting. He was able to do that fairly successfully a few years back at his show at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. But the circumstances here aren't nearly as kind. Shadows from the gallery's track lights mix with his own intended web of transient shadows, and room pillars break up the rhythm of the shadow plays.

At the Nelson location, Marie Navarre's small assemblages of found objects and images also manage to connect on a variety of levels. At their best, Navarre's works are a quiet form of visual alchemy. In "The weight of the body at the center of the earth," for instance, she juxtaposes a small, almost skeletal image of insect wings with an equally small diagram of the human nervous system and an illustration of the principle of leverage. The nerve lines webbing outward from the spine jibe nicely with the subtle filigree pattern in the wings, and somehow spark an interplay between lightness and heft--and contextual nature of meaning. Similar subtleties also enliven her "singing lessons/frail tunes."

Unfortunately, too many of the exhibition's other works suffer from the trite simplicities of Christine Smith's digitally manipulated images of Barbie's friend Ken, with commentaries like "stroke my ego" and "he was nothing but a lousy one-night stand."

Or the irrelevance of Alfred Quiroz's large caricature of Ronald Reagan's public life as "Da Grate Kommie-Nuke-Ater"--a work made just this past year, nearly a decade after Reagan left office.

Except for Dan Collins' latest installation in his ongoing series concerning television and mediated realities--in many ways a repeat of earlier works--the installations leave you wondering whether you're viewing the prop or the play.

Gene Cooper's installation offers very little to viewers when he isn't around to perform (it was suffering from technical difficulties the day I saw it).

Sherrie Medina's "abandoned familiarity" is no more than a germ of an idea.
And in the area of new media, the show's artists appear to be reembracing the early-20th-century view that new technology is a tide that will lift all art. Timothy Kelly's video "Chrome," for instance, is filled with layers of garbled information and what appear to be monkey-cam tricks. So, you get a clear lesson in how easily electronic technique can supplant visual cogency.

Works that could be characterized as new formats have a similar weakness. Only, instead of falling for technology, they appear to have fallen for the idea that an art museum provides a smarter setting for works better suited to such old formats as books, documentary movies or magazines.

This is particularly true of Annie Lopez's "Pastora," an autobiographical installation about her search through family history, and Rhonda Zwillinger's photographs and writing from her series "The Dispossessed: Living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities." Lopez's installation includes several walls of framed family photographs, scraps of anecdotes about Pastora and a small memento shrine containing empty baby-food bottles with Christmas lights in their lids and notes attached to the sides. Zwillinger, a victim of MCS, has taken photographs of fellow victims and written accounts of the disease's impact on their lives. Unfortunately, the pictures are on a wall and the writing in a notebook on a pedestal several feet away. So diligent viewers who want to associate images and text are forced to bounce back and forth between wall and pedestal. This sort of nuisance could be remedied fairly simply by a decent magazine or book layout.

All in all, the trends in "Another Arizona" are hardly Arizonan. They inhabit contemporary university programs, where most of the artists in the show were trained or still work. And they reflect the at-large art world's continuing efforts to overhaul the identity of art.

The point is that the real value of this show has less to do with the works themselves--which are generally mediocre--than what they suggest about the changing idea of regional artistic identities. If complex global markets and communications haven't killed regionalism outright, they at least have weakened it to the point where coyotes, sunsets and cowboys are just about the only simple images that people can think of as Arizona art.

"Another Arizona: A State-Wide Juried Exhibition" continues through Sunday, May 10, at the Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center, and in the Matthews Gallery. 10th Street and Mill in Tempe. For more information, see the Art listing.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow