Visual Arts

Masters Without Masterpieces

Summer comes with the cultural expectation that the farther you travel, the better the art gets. Mexico City, New York, Europe and Asia prove that equation. But cultural tourism in Phoenix's west side remains a mystifying exception.That's partly why "Three Generations of Great Masters of Mexican Painting," at ASU West, jumped right off a press release not long ago. This is a big-sounding show in a setting that's barely equipped to handle the small.

While Tempe's ASU campus has a sizable museum and budget, ASU West limps along with a dim gallery -- barely 30 feet by 30 feet -- on the second floor of the University Center Building. Exhibitions there typically suffer from lousy lighting, poor installations and a lack of basic educational materials that accompany exhibitions at nearly every other Valley gallery or museum. To worsen matters, the gallery sits around the corner from an ill-defined student lounge where a television is always spouting Oprah or some other daytime culture, whether you want to hear it or not.

These facts should have been fair warning. As exhibitions go, "Three Generations of Great Masters of Mexican Painting" is a thoroughly hodgepodge treatment of the subject -- more an index of great names than great works.

True to the advance billing, the show's 59 paintings, drawings, prints and collages span slightly more than three generations -- about 70 years. They represent works attributed to Mexican headliners Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and José Orozco, whose murals of the 1920s and 1930s defined the Mexican mainstream.

Also represented are Carlos Merida, Remedios Varo, English transplant Leonora Carrington and others who pursued European brands of Surrealism and Abstraction.

"Master" is a squishy art word that throws a veil of genius over every little shred from the artist's studio. But the reality is that masters -- like great baseball players -- have their bad days. With a few exceptions, this exhibition offers up far too many works that exemplify those.

None of the works by Rivera and Orozco -- two of the 20th century's greatest muralists -- reveals why these artists are considered the masters they are. Orozco is represented by several tiny and insignificant works. And several of Rivera's watercolors have the look of Fauvist knockoffs on wrinkled paper -- the mottled colors of their figures wrapped in thick black borders.

The show has no works by Frida Kahlo -- which may be just as well, given the poor quality of the works by other artists here.

One exception to the show's lackluster array is David Siqueiros' Mountain Spirit, a landscape with ghostlike figures emerging from the hills. Done late in Siqueiros' life, it has the powerful, thick brushwork that gave his better paintings their force. Unfortunately, the painting is so poorly lighted that it's difficult to see much beyond its textures, overall form and the scarred Plexiglas that covers it.

Another exception is a beautiful black-and-white pastel, Standing, by Francisco Zuñiga. It depicts a woman standing naked from the waist up. With her eyes closed, her head swathed in a towel and her arms folded across her plump belly, she conveys the artist's trademark world of puffy sensuousness.

The show also contains Alfredo Zalce's quiet gem of a watercolor, Peasant House. Its hollow-looking house is surrounded by sandy earth, sandy sky and a low-walled courtyard with eight or nine Joshua trees. A few clouds braid the sky, giving the desolate scene its only hint of moisture.

Like many works here, Zalce's is poorly lighted and placed so high on the wall that most people have to squint to see it.

That's also the case with the examples by Carrington and her friend Varo. Their dark, occult-driven images of night landscapes -- oceans, mountains and swamps -- filled with mists and murky creatures amount to Halloween Surrealism. The delicacy of these images, with their tiny details, fantastic-looking people and animals with masklike faces and subtle colorations, is difficult enough to view with decent lighting and nearly impossible to see here.

The larger problem with this show is that it isn't a formal museum exhibition whose contents have been weeded and tuned to offer useful insights about modern Mexican painting. The works are from the private collection of Dr. Augusto Lodi, a Pasadena gallery owner who has been buying Mexican art for the past 35 years. So you're at the mercy of the collector's eye -- and possibly budget.

Lodi says he tried to assemble a comprehensive collection of modern Mexican painters.

Aside from revealing Lodi's successes and failures as an art shopper, his collection highlights the varied trends that Mexican painters pursued in the 20th century. In addition to the imported brands of Surrealism and Symbolism mentioned previously, there's a smattering of Picasso mixed in with healthy doses of native Mexican narrative and allegorical styles, along with a batch of social commentary.

But if you're looking to see masterpieces by the masters, you'd be wise to wait for the spring 2001 exhibition "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and 20th Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection" at Phoenix Art Museum. That show promises to live up to its title.

"Three Generations of Great Masters of Mexican Painting" runs through Saturday, June 17, at the ASU West Art Gallery, on the campus at 47th Avenue and Thunderbird. Gallery hours are 2 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information call 602-543-6057.