Visual Arts


Putting features on the faceless hordes of homeless that roam the streets and back alleys of urban America is the goal of Galeria Mesa's juried exhibition "Going Home-less." The show successfully dredges up some real humanity, with some very real emotions, from the bottom of those overflowing grocery carts typically associated with society's tattered and scattered.

"Going Home-less" grapples visually with a problem that just won't go away by closing one's eyes, clicking one's heels and intoning, "There's no place like home." There is no home for these displaced souls, who have become such a routine part of our landscape that we are completely anesthetized to their presence. They become as featureless as the building walls against which they slump and as dispensable as the cardboard boxes under which they often seek refuge from the elements. The show attempts to breathe some compassion back into our stock perception of the homeless as torpid losers.

Kathleen Talmage, artist-founder of Kid's Workshop, an arts program for homeless children, and ASU curator of education Heather Lineberry juried the multimedia show from 257 nationwide submissions. "Kathy, Heather, Richard Wagner, the show's curator, and I were in the gallery, reviewing all the slides that came in from across the country," says Robert Schultz, director of visual arts for Mesa Arts Center, of which Galeria Mesa is an integral part. "It was just very striking to me to look at the slides as a whole and to really feel the cumulative effect of the homeless situation in our country--and the kind of sobering effect it had on each one of us." One of the most hard-hitting pieces in the exhibition, a 35-minute video titled "Through Our Own Eyes--Self-Portraits by People Without Homes" by Los Angeles artist Jean Ferro, does just that. Apparently fueled by the belief that people without homes are neither stupid nor uncreative, Ferro provided 30 of them throughout the Los Angeles area with disposable cameras and asked them to take photographs of anything they wanted. The artist then produced a video using photographs shot by the participants, whom she interviews as their photos are shown on-screen; many of these images are of surprisingly good quality, and the stories elicited from the homeless photographers are even better.

In Ferro's short but engaging video, we encounter characters worthy of a Charles Bukowski novel, homeless people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. One rather articulate downtown denizen in a burnoose, we learn, used to landscape penthouses in New York; another was a carpenter in Arizona who now bags it under freeway bridges. Two runaway kids from Louisiana and Oklahoma, once rock-star wanna-bes, now live roofless on seedy Hollywood Boulevard. They are people who remind us that art is often a poor imitation of life. All video participants seem to be optimistically attempting to create familial settings in spite of their rather bleak surroundings. Many of the photographs they've taken relate to friends and family members, just like the average family photo album might contain. Most albums, however, don't boast images of smiling cops on the beat in the process of rousting vagrants who have lingered too long, friendly UPS drivers, kindly nuns working the missions on Skid Row in downtown L.A., Hollywood hookers and rough trade, or angry ex-wives flipping the bird. And most family albums wouldn't include a gruesome close-up of an unconscious friend's bloody face, a portrait of someone who lost one of the daily fights that are a grim part of living on the streets.

Physical surroundings were a popular subject for the homeless photographers, some of which were artfully abstracted, like the bars on a liquor-store window in the neighborhood where one photographer hangs out, or staged, like the nude Trojan horse shot by a stressed-out hippie type. For the most part, the homeless photographers were not afraid to experiment with their cameras, an approach that may proceed from the fact that they have nothing much to lose.

Those interviewed by Ferro obviously had thought about the problem of homelessness. "Too old," one participant mused, "not qualified for a job, too many needy, not enough people giving money." Ferro's video forces us to think about the problem, too.

For professional artists, as well, photography seems to be the medium of choice for grappling with the subject of homelessness. Most shots are of your typical urban-nomads-under-boxes genre. The most effective pieces in the show, however, are those isolating objects that bespeak the grinding life of a street person, like "Shelter" by Steve Welch, which shows the bones of an abandoned house, a ratty mattress its only furnishing. "Open House" by Jamie Ross depicts another seedy interior, its walls riddled with large holes. On one wall, someone has scrawled "PRI VET." Beth Bowdren's "Room With a View" and "2nd Hand Couch" immortalize the shaggy remains of old car seats, a recliner and a couch, all of which obviously serve as sleeping quarters for someone making the city dump his home. The paintings in "Going Home-less" are generally the least evocative among their counterparts in other media; somehow they come off as self-indulgent when applied to the subject of homelessness. However, "Red-Taping the Homeless" by Robert Peppers, a Cont drawing of what appears to be a dead man encased in a box whose flaps bear the admonition, "Must tuck both side short flaps in slot before taping closed," is a fairly successful statement about society's mechanized approach to life and death among the homeless. And Steven Thurston's warty "Rubber Homes" pieces, made from slimy cast rubber, are lyrical paeans to the abiding creativity of the desperate. Galeria Mesa's "Going Home-less" exhibition is being staged in conjunction with last weekend's "Empty Bowls," Mesa Arts Center's annual fund-raising event for Family Emergency Services Center and Paz de Cristo. Both social service agencies, located in the city of Mesa, deal with the homeless on an ongoing basis. Some of the symbolic vessels, made from clay, metal and paper (the delicate paper bowls some artists contributed went sans soup), were created by well-known ceramic artists such as Kurt Weiser, Patrick Terjak, Ed Lebow and Dorothy Rissman. "Celebrity bowls," which were auctioned off, had been decorated and/or signed by the likes of Phoenix Suns Charles Barkley and Frank Johnson, as well as the Suns Gorilla, whose bowl netted the most money at last year's auction. Mesa's affable Mayor Willie Wong, and local broadcasting personalities Beth McDonald, Bill Austin, Heidi Foglesong and Todd Whitthorne also tried their hands. "Our real coup was in getting four cast members of Phantom of the Opera to do bowls," says Schultz. "We took them backstage, where the actors worked on the bowls there."

The bulk of the bowls were tirelessly cranked out by full-time Mesa Arts Center ceramics instructor Jeff Reich, with the help of artist-in-residence Tim Hernandez, Larren Lerdall of Arizona Clay and ceramics student Sue Forrest. Ceramics students from the Mesa public school district also donated 350 pieces to the effort.

Even gubernatorial candidates Fife Symington and Eddie Basha bellied up to the bowl. "This is probably the closest these two have ever been," Schultz noted, as he unveiled the bowls decorated by the two political opponents before the fund-raising event. Sorry, Fife, but Basha's design, featuring a shopping cart next to the Arizona state star superimposed on an outline of the state, won my vote for thematic integrity.

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Kathleen Vanesian