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TMA's Arizona Biennial Showcases A Wild Mix Of Artists.

By Margaret Regan

AT THE VENICE Biennale, which opened in Italy last week, the classic paintings-on-canvas of Tucsonan Robert Colescott were lonely among all the video and film and virtual art.

Indeed, as New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted in her report on the huge international extravaganza, "the traditional art object had only a few convincing defenders," one of them being Colescott, who is representing the U.S. this year. Smith praised the artist's "bright, luscious paintings, with their raucous figurative style and caustically ribald commentary on American racism" as one of the "more solid performances here." Elsewhere at the "Techno Biennale," as art wits have dubbed it, there was a "widespread use of film and video and a nearly total lack of interest in painting."

Back in Colescott's home state, the Tucson Museum of Art is staging its own, far more modest, Biennial, a juried exhibition that showcases the works not of the world's artists but of those laboring here in Arizona.

Unlike the Techno Biennale, though, the local version can be described most accurately as eclectic, with no one genre or even point of view predominating. Among the 117 works on view by some 85 artists, there are plenty of paintings--on linen, on canvas, on paper and on wood--but they're just a ranking minority. Made by such respected artists as Joanne Kerrihard, DeAnn Melton, Jeffrey Jonczyk and the up-and-coming Chris Rush, the paintings share space with many other "traditional art objects." There's classic black-and-white gelatin silver print photography (Tarah Rider Berry's fine pictures of impoverished young girls) and sleek metal and stone sculptures, including "Spur Marker," by Tucson éminence grise Fred Borcherdt. There are drawings in pastel and charcoal and pencil, including virtuoso colored pencil work by Tucson's Vivian Mallette Hutchins, and the familiar ceramic pedestal pieces of Maurice Grossman, an Old Pueblo fixture.

But crowded in among all these purist genres are media wildly mixed or even newly invented. There are photographs that have been sewn or painted or collaged or lighted by electricity, video art and collaged computer imagery, sculptures rendered in stitched paper and painted papier mâché and woven cloth (Barbara Brandel), and a floor installation made of mesquite and mud (Selina Littler). Michael Longstaff, a fine twentysomething Tucson artist who's already been collected by the Center for Creative Photography, is showing some of the most beautiful work in the show. His two artist's books, made by his own hands, combine paint, fabric, photography and text; they're visually enticing and intellectually challenging.

Some ceramic artists push old materials into new uses: Sam Chung of Tempe has made ceramic teapots that are funny and functional, while Richard Wager of Scottsdale has assembled a whole wall full of green ceramic ears ("Listening Device") that in decrying the creeping loss of privacy transforms a craft material into the stuff of political commentary.

At the show's two aesthetic extremes are Tucson painter Melton and Mesa artist Steve Gompf. Melton is exhibiting an oil on linen, the sumptuously painted "Sao," an expressionistic rendering of a net full of fish that verges on the abstract. Its thick pigments and enthusiastic brushstrokes are a testament to Melton's unshaken belief in the continuing viability of painting and even in the nobility of the art enterprise. Her brand of art prizes the touch of the artist's own hand.

By contrast, Gompf's unearthed gadgets are made by somebody else. The precursors of television, these "televisors" are hefty wooden cabinets that were proudly displayed in turn-of-the-century living rooms and used to project entertaining moving images. Gompf has appropriated some of the televisor's early images, and rendered them digitally for a modern audience. On his machines, you can watch a pale angel or a ghastly human figure cavorting through time, visions from the dawn of the media age. In contrast to Melton's work, which honors the individual vision, Gompf's found-object genre suggests art is just part of larger cultural continuum. It's the artist job not to create art, but to call our attention to it.

In between these two poles, many other trends can be plotted. Reliably represented, as in almost any large Arizona show, are works influenced by Mexican culture. Michael Cajero continues his perishable work in papier mâché, making two colorfully painted sculptures that rework icons of Mexican-American culture, including "Tati," a wildly dancing woman. Dolores Rivas Bahti chronicles traditional barrio life in "Ex-Votos Chicano: Diptych," which maneuvers photos of children into a traditional religious format. Alfred Quiroz does one of his blistering history lessons in paint, this time concentrating on the U.S. annexation of the Southwest, in "Muneefist Destiny," a cartoonish map that evokes the racism underlying the doctrine of manifest destiny.

Speaking of politics, a must-see is Lewis Alquist's "The Perfect Crime," a portrait of Gov. J. Fife Symington. In a perfect marriage of material and subject, Phoenix artist Alquist has sketched a portrait of the indicted guv in Vaseline on glass, casting on the box behind it a shadow image of the man of shady doings.

Juried by officials from the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts of the Museum of New Mexico, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, the show naturally will be criticized for failing to make a significant statement about Arizona art. But the jurors can choose only from among what's submitted. By and large the submissions, numbering less than a thousand, did not include entries from Arizona's best-known artists; the bulk were from younger to mid-career artists who can use a place in the Biennial as a résumé-builder.

As usual, the jewelry and furniture entries seem wildly out of place and give the museum the aura of an art bazaar; a separate crafts show would better serve the state's craftspeople. Two brave practitioners of Western art who made it into the exhibition highlight the weaknesses of their genre: fine draftsmanship, tired imagery. A dissident view of the entire Biennial undertaking can be seen currently in Bero Gallery's Salon de Cêlébration, a gathering of works rejected by the jurors.

On the bright side, Tucson made a good showing, with some 54 artists, or more than half, hailing from the city. A number of pieces, including works by Katherine Josten, Chris Rush and Joanne Kerrihard, have already been seen in local venues. And though the exhibition regrettably lacks a Colescott, the town's newly lionized elder painter can take heart that he works in a place where both the traditional art object and the new media are both considered worthy of pursuit.

Arizona Biennial '97 continues through August 17 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 624-2333.

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