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Little Masterpieces

Artists, take note: Margaret is here to give out her 2011 Sizeys!

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Arizona is burning.

North, south and east, flames are leaping through forests and deserts, engulfing trees and incinerating cacti. Thousands of acres are scorched, and the skies are stained with smoke.

In this year of Armageddon, it's only natural that the art of disaster captures our attention.

The 19th annual small-works invitational at Davis Dominguez, wittily titled Small Works Considered, always has plenty of soothing summer art: gentle landscapes and seascapes, lighthearted abstractions, comical sculpture and almost always a boat painting or two. This edition, some 80 tiny pieces strong, is no exception.

Still, a few pieces limn our fears of nature's rampages. They look at fire, at lightning, at tsunamis, at the whole catalog of plagues that have savagely attacked our warming Earth this year.

Obeying the exhibition's rules, all of the artists have compressed their aesthetics into 2-D works no more than 12 inches square, or sculptures no more than 18 inches high. (Well, most of them, anyway: We're looking at you, Sean-Paul Pluguez, and your accordion painting that folds out 3 feet square.) This show is always the occasion for our annual Sizeys contest, wherein we dole out prizes both silly and sincere to the small-size works. With no disrespect intended to those suffering in Arizona's blazes, we add new categories to accommodate this year's dark visions of nature.

Most Worrisome Sky: Debra Salopek paints gorgeous old-masterly landscapes in oils, winning a Sizey almost every year for Best Clouds or Best Landscape. In this perilous summer, her "Landscape and Sky #14" turns ominous. Tiny mountains range across the bottom of her canvas, flecked with pink and gold. A huge cloud drifts across the sky innocently enough, but higher up, the sky is a malevolent-looking dark gray, tinged with denim, a portent of danger to come.

Scariest Lightning: Lightning, so far, has not been blamed for our Arizona fires. But that doesn't mean it can't and won't do damage here. In "Due West," intrepid photographer Jeff Smith shot a white-hot bolt of lightning streaking down through the sky and striking not one, but two points on a mountaintop. An eerie violet light clings to the lightning's zigzag edges; a band of orange sky glows in between the inky clouds above and the dark mountain below, proving once again that danger can have a terrible beauty.

Most Terrifying Fire: The best thing about James Cook's painted orange inferno is its location, on the dock of the bay, right by the water, where, presumably, it can't do too much damage. Still, in "Harbor Study #2," Cook nimbly captures the terror of an out-of-control fire. He violently slashes orange on yellow and lights up the nighttime sky in unnatural reds. He conjures up the fire's heat so convincingly that the oil on canvas looks like it would singe your hand if you touched it.

Most Tragic Sturm und Drang: The early German romantic poets favored wild emotion as an antidote to extreme rationalism, earning the name of sturm (storm) for their fevered works. Painter Matthias Düwel's aesthetic was shaped by his youth in postwar Germany, and he lives up to the sturm heritage, routinely making abstracted paintings of destroyed cities, collapsing buildings and catastrophic interiors. Working here in somber gray-and-white acrylics, Düwel paints the deadly tsunami rushing into a Japanese town. Small as it is, "Fuyu" captures the overwhelming size of the waves as they drown the village.

Fortunately, the Earth is oftentimes benevolent. Beautiful landscapes are routine in this show, and many artists deserve a Blessed Earth prize. Painter James Schaub gets one for "His Drifting Sea and Sky," an abstracted acrylic on canvas that engagingly mimics the swell of a gentle gray wave beneath a turquoise sky. The late Bruce McGrew still cheers with one of his inimitable watercolors, of a northerly landscape, in his beloved Scotland, perhaps, its waters and hills seen from on high. In her oil on canvas, "Daira," DeAnn Melton evokes an old-fashioned seashore, blurrily seen through the misty sea air. Ladies in long dresses stroll along a distant beach, their skirts billowing in the breeze. Nancy Tokar Miller's "White Water Draw #1," an abstracted acrylic on handmade paper, appears to be another sea scene, but the best thing about it is its lush background in shiny copper.

Best Birds: Earth's avian creatures are lionized by a surprising number of artists. Barbara Rogers, who has a solo show up the block at Conrad Wilde Gallery, created a white bird rimmed in terra cotta in "Winter Visitor." Painting in luscious encaustics on panel, she dishes up joyous Matisse-like swirls, and wins Top Bird. Runners-up are Moira Geoffrion for her "Afternoon Memory" of hummingbirds painted on irregularly arranged boards, and Mauricio Toussaint, another encaustic painter, for three bluebirds on branches in his "Comodoro Nirvana."

Most Surprising Medium goes to a couple of painters. Jim Waid usually dazzles with thick swabs of acrylic paints, but this time, he turns to delicate watercolor in "Lepidoptera #1," a lovely, translucent rendering of a butterfly in violet. A pale window frame is barely glimpsed in a wash of subdued gray. Monika Rossa, a deft painter, this time around works in 3-D. Her "Unrelated Thoughts" is a charming sculptural work in acrylic, wood and metal, with cheerful metallic figures presiding on a see-through Lucite pedestal, gleaming with bits of gold paint.

Speaking of surprising, Mary Stevens Rogot gets the nod for Most Fun Work in Clay. The winner last year for Best Hammer, Rogot this time created an uncanny replica of an old-timey typewriter, down to its black-and-red ribbon, entirely in clay.

Most French: Oddly, this Southern Arizona show nearly always carries some French-themed works. This year, it's a tie. Jan Olsson, a native Tucsonan who lives in France, marvelously conjured up the marvelous Toulouse-Lautrec in "Two Models," a supple drawing of two women in white. Amy Metier's fine "French Study" is also art-historical; this checkerboard, loosely painted and collaged with French text, could have come from Paris of the 1920s.

There's no contest in the Best Coffee category: David F. Brown wins for his "Poca Virga," a delightful drawing on paper that features the usual charcoal, along with smudgy footprints and a coffee stain. Across the bottom of the paper is a microscopic drawing of the Sonoran Desert, complete with tiny Catalinas and saguaros, and the ladder that the artist typically uses as a stand-in for himself. Above this miniature desert, though, is a truly vicious-looking thundercloud—or is it a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion?

Best Fencing Painting: Anxiety is a major subtext this year, even when you least expect it. Jill Martin's "Parry" is an uneasy acrylic of a house interior, with a small girl marooned between two dueling fencers. The atmospheric work is painted in colors that are thin, and even watery, but uncannily compelling.

Best Father-Son Team: Since Father's Day is coming up, we'll pay homage to the Rossis, père et fils. In his realistic cast bronze "Bobcat (Portrait)," dad Mark Rossi honors the Arizona wildlife now losing lives and territory in the flames. He's long crafted realistic sculptures of the animals of the Southwest, fires or no, but in this time of danger, his bobcat takes on a special poignancy. Son Tom Rossi's "Cross Your Fingers" is a breezy abstraction, painted in acrylics on panel. Nicely layered, it has six nearly round shapes, colored red-orange and fuchsia, rolling across a whitewash that allows the colors underneath to seep through.

It's a cheerful work, but in this summer of our discontent—and taken with his father's work—its title turns it edgy. Those rolling balls seem to be playing a dangerous game.

Let us cross our fingers, all of us, in hopes that life and limb, and home and hearth, will be preserved, and that the flames will soon end their parlous ride across our wilderness.

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