Visual Arts

Teach His Own

Ever send out an invitation to a big wingding and no one RSVP'd? That's basically what happened to Mesa Arts Center's Galeria Mesa when it sent out a submission call for its third juried exhibition of work by art educators who teach in Arizona's public schools, colleges and universities -- including private and charter schools.

According to Robert Schultz, MAC's acting arts administrator, participation in Galeria Mesa's 1998 "Facultease II" was overwhelming. But for its 2000 exhibition, most art educators were no-shows, so to speak. "We received only 25 entries this year, despite doing the same amount of publicity," says Schultz.

Unfazed by the surprisingly phlegmatic response from a group of working artist-teachers traditionally given to whining about a lack of Valley exhibition opportunities (and lack of critical press when those opportunities do occasionally appear), Schultz and Galeria Mesa curator Patty Haberman turned to artist Marie Navarre for help. A part-time public art project consultant for the Phoenix Arts Commission, Navarre was the juror originally assigned to select pieces for inclusion in the exhibition.

She eventually put together a show based on works made in a variety of media by art educators. "Way Finders" -- this year's incarnation of "Facultease" -- was cobbled together from pieces created by some of the brave souls who actually sent in their entry forms, as well as by other artist-educators invited to submit work by Navarre.

In all honesty, "Way Finders" is probably better off in the long run, because the overall quality of the work in this tight little show is impressive. An elegant oasis -- with only a few dry watering holes -- in the summer desert of Valley art offerings, Galeria Mesa's group show is well worth the schlep to the East Valley.

Black-and-white photographs by Kelley Kirkpatrick, a photography instructor at Mesa Community College, were chosen from the meager number of entries that trickled in. Kirkpatrick's work, some of the best in the show, is proof that it's quality, not quantity, that counts. Included are a number of images the photographer created during frequent trips to Portugal in the past two years. Guitars in Fog, Rain and Celina de Piedade are notable images she captured throughout her travels.

Kirkpatrick does Ansel Adams' arcane Zone System proud in Celina de Piedade, a close-up of a raven-haired, Rubenesque girl whose eyes are dreamily closed as she becomes lost in playing an ornate antique accordion, every detail of which has been lovingly traced by the camera. She stands in a field of sunflowers, her face turned toward the sky like the sunflowers surrounding her.

A beautifully atmospheric silver gelatin print, Guitars in Fog focuses on lights strung in the shape of guitars across a glistening cobblestone street on a foggy night; old arched portales repeat the gracefully arched design of the guitars. In Rain, two figures, one holding an umbrella for them both, recede into hazy rain, framed by crumbly, moss-marred walls. The seductiveness of the diffused light frozen for us in Guitars and Rain, lingering long after one leaves the gallery, manages to avoid the travelogue triteness that usually characterizes such subject matter.

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe by Brian Painter, an assistant art professor at Northern State University, was another piece chosen from submissions. Painter's large, motorized metal sculpture, executed in a sort of Tim-Burton-does-Rube-Goldberg style, resembles an undulating table held up by downward-snaking roots. It looks quite elegant against the gallery's clean white walls and wooden floors.

But beware: an old weathered hoe slowly circles the table, then whacks a steel plate attached to the table top, its thunderous crack threatening to split the viewer in two. According to Galeria Mesa curator Haberman, the piece's motion detector was mercifully disabled because the sound it made was so loud people at the other end of the gallery would involuntarily jump at the noise. If you insist on being tortured, gallery staff will be happy to momentarily turn on Painter's sculpture for you.

Ignore the belabored, overly explanatory text accompanying Gregory Sales' enormous wall sculpture, Love Songs, Nothing but Love Songs, which commandeers the entire back wall of the gallery -- and just revel in the presence this piece creates. Sales, former education curator at ASU Art Museum, has fashioned two, four-foot, anatomically believable hearts from a proprietary sugar concoction he's come up with, and attached them to a flaming-red backboard. The monster hearts look as though they've been carved from Carrara marble, and their sheer size commands attention.

In counterpoint, Dan Mayer's mixed-media book pieces are diminutive and evocative of Old World alchemical wisdom. A community workshop instructor for bookmaking, printmaking and papermaking, Mayer takes old books and "ages" them even further with paint, as he does in Temperacia, into which he cuts glassed-in windows that display a variety of mysterious elements. The reference in Mayer's work to books being windows into different worlds is inescapable.

Less successful are Carol Panaro-Smith's waxy tomes, crafted from 1944 Encyclopedia Britannicas. Panaro is a photography instructor at Metro Arts High School and Phoenix Community College, as well as the faculty chair of art at Rio Salado Community College. Panaro's The Wonder of Matter, which consists of three encyclopedia volumes whose papers are ripped or carved out to display indecipherable underdrawings or prints (including an old Mexican print of an idealized, albeit headless, señorita grasping a jícaro, or lacquered bowl), display none of the exquisite craftsmanship or solid psychological content evident in her last show of work at Burton Barr Central Library.

I was even less impressed with Cecilie Arcari-Glas' work, which harks back to the bad old days of snoozy conceptual and minimalist art. There was nothing even remotely intriguing about Blooming, an installation consisting of withered roots stuck in a jar of honey and capped with wax, then placed on a plywood table layered with wax -- or On Being Level, a compacted wedge of soil and soap perched on another wedge of multilayered wax atop a plywood platform. And what is the point of the kitschy platitudes painted on the bare chests of two young children in Prayer Book, a large color photo by the ASU visiting associate professor?

Dean Terasaki, director of photography at Glendale Community College, wins my undying gratitude for creating some digital photomontages that actually attain the status of fine art. The recent arming of America with gigabytten computers, locked and loaded with sophisticated photo editing software, has done very little to sharpen the aesthetic aim of artists who have embraced this new medium.

Terasaki, however, hits the target in both Fortune, Grace and Angel Island and Paper Umbrella/Peace Dance, showing that computer-generated imagery can be conceptually provocative and not just eye candy. The artist thoughtfully uses digitally created imagery to deal with themes of Japanese-American culture, war and atomic destruction.

The compositional focus of Fortune is a slightly solarized, black-and-white photo of an old Japanese man holding a young child. In the colored background, neatly made army cots and hanging laundry tell us unmistakably that this is a Japanese-American internment camp from World War II. Terasaki overlays cabalistic drawings with Japanese kangi (characters) that appear to be hand diagrams with life lines that palm readers consult to predict the future, as well as facial diagrams with red lips used as some sort of mysterious template. In Paper Umbrella, the ghostly image of an umbrella-hoisting folk dancer in red is balanced, like a tightrope walker, on a background filled with a bombed out, dome-topped building.

In general, "Way Finders" is a decent cross section of solid work by artists who also happen to be art educators. And it gives us some insight into the quality of instruction that is molding budding artists both here in the Valley and throughout the state. Too bad a big bunch of those Arizona art educators have passed up a great chance to exhibit their work in a respected community gallery, one that will be even more of a cultural contender when Mesa's new Arts and Entertainment Center is finished in the next few years. Galeria Mesa's group show is well worth the schlep to the East Valley.

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Kathleen Vanesian