The painter Andy Burgess adores matchboxes.
And ticket stubs and stamps and out-of-date money, like the lira and the escudo, currencies that expired with the euro.
Burgess' artistic mission is to make everybody else love these throwaways, too. He cuts them up into bits and re-assembles the colored cardboard and paper into jazzy collages. And he brushes gouache on top of the old currencies, making paintings that are nothing less than radiant.
The small gouache painting "Filtered Light" is the most beautiful of the 35 pieces in Get What You Want, Burgess' exhibition in the enormous new Eric Firestone Gallery at Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street in the Warehouse Arts District.
Burgess glued six "vintage bank notes" onto a plain background, in two horizontal rows of three. On top of the old money, he penciled in a geometric composition, of divided circles floating within divided rectangles. Finally, with a loaded brush, he painted the shapes pale luscious colors—lemon yellow, peach, cerulean—deliberately pushing the paint slightly beyond the lines.
Old money likes to be invisible, and appropriately, only the faint outlines of Burgess' out-of-date bills can be seen beneath the paint. But the thick paper makes a surprisingly tactile surface for the gooey gouaches: The old bills lap up just the right amount of pigment and let the rest pool on top, radiating color.
For his collages, Burgess, a Londoner newly transplanted to Tucson, zeroes in on matchbooks and other ephemera from the 1930s to the '50, when sophisticated typography merged with bright color and bold design. The gallery wall text calls the period the "Golden Age of American graphic design," but Burgess also looks at the other side of the Iron Curtain.
His collage "Socialism" is a simple grid of six Soviet-era postage stamps. Like their American counterparts, they celebrate the glories of the consumer life: They're decorated with boldly graphic TVs, cars and high-rise apartments.
Unlike the stamp pieces, the matchbook collages rely less on some anonymous graphic artist's drawings and more on the highly pigmented colors of the cardboard. Burgess' own artistic contribution is selecting the colors and arranging the pieces into painterly grids without ever once picking up a brush.
"Strike-Rite" consists entirely of horizontal snips of cardboard, 36 in all, stacked into three vertical columns of a dozen strips apiece. The palette for this one is subtle and pleasing, an interplay of gray, beige, tan and ochre. In "Dizzy Club," the strips are even skinnier, and the colors much jazzier: yellow, red, green, white.
Some of the collages deviate from these abstract conjugations of color and pattern. His found papers tend toward the rectangular and the angular, and they translate easily into the boxy buildings of the city, especially the urban streets at night, with flashing traffic signals and neon.
"Congress Hotel" is a collection of rectangles conjuring up a skyscraper skyline by day. The town it depicts is a little fancier than Tucson, more big-city, but it was inspired by a major Burgess find: an authentic Old Pueblo matchbook dating from the middle of the last century. The cover is brown and beige, with a cowboy on horseback looping a lasso across the top. Below, bold sans-serif letters in black announce Congress Hotel, Tucson, Arizona.
Despite this small treasure, this collage isn't as lively as some of the others. And its static urban grid is a little ungainly compared to more rhythmic works such as "Aereo."
In the vibrant "Aereo," curves careen all over, and stripes whiz by, printed in wild oranges and screaming greens. Its leitmotif is the sticker at the center: Its words "Correo Aereo"—airmail—are red on white. Aerodynamic lines nearby are ready to whoosh into the sky. It's all travel and movement.
Gallerist Eric Firestone says that Burgess has only recently been making oils on canvas and board inspired by the small collages. Ten of them are in the exhibition, and their compositions are as intricate as the collages', but the colors are not there, not quite yet. They can't match the patina of the old printed papers. And the plain canvas and boards don't have the alluring texture—or the rich history—of the wonderful old found objects.
Burgess' vintage materials, deployed to modernist ends, easily resonate with Firestone's new gallery. The place, all 9,000 square feet of it, is in an old building that has been vacant since the Arizona Glass and Mirror Co. departed several years ago. Its distressed walls read like an archaeological dig of even earlier times: You can see old store signs still faintly painted on the aged bricks, saying, "market," "groceries and meats." But the place is now dedicated to cutting-edge art.
Firestone has tried numerous outlets for art over the years. His gallery at River Road and Campbell Avenue specializes in historic Tucson paintings and furniture. For years, he had a more free-form gallery on Congress Street, but he's now shut that down. A Scottsdale satellite is also now closed.
The new plan is to concentrate all the contemporary art into the new Sixth Avenue space, which opened late last year. Firestone also intends to screen films and stage readings in the big rooms, and his wife, Angela Firestone, has installed a boutique called Tin at the western end of the complex.
The gallery, he says, "has a truly modern zeitgeist. I'm jumping off into contemporary and modern, but there are no rules and regulations. I'm doing shows that will bring people to Tucson."
Next up is Warhol: From Dylan to Duchamp, a photography show of some 125 images of Andy Warhol, his New York Factory and the Velvet Underground band, put together by guest curator Eric Kroll. Opening Feb. 27, it will showcase the works of 28 or 29 photographers.
"We're publishing a catalog of the whole show," Firestone says.
Among the images will be shots of Warhol in Tucson for the making of Lonesome Cowboys, a 1968 movie shot partly at Rancho Linda Vista.
Selina Littler, daughter of RLV co-founder Charles Littler, has a "loop of her father filming Warhol," Firestone says.
The Firestone Warhol show is timed to coincide with a tsunami of Warhol events around town. The Tucson Museum of Art debuts Andy Warhol Portfolios: Life and Legends the same night; TMA will showcase the artist's own work, concentrating on his silk screens. The night before the two art openings, the Rialto Theatre will stage a Factory Party with Under Velvetground, a live concert with the theater redecorated to look like the Factory. And the Loft Cinema is screening a series of Warhol films in March, including Lonesome Cowboys on March 4.
Firestone says he's optimistic about the gallery scene, even though the economic news is gloomy. Conrad Wilde Gallery, a contemporary art space, has settled in new digs around the corner from him on Sixth Street, and the Museum of Contemporary Art will christen its new building—the former downtown fire station—in a public opening on March 6.
"Ultimately, we have to try to work together," he says of the contemporary spaces. "We're the same demographic, pushing what's next. It sets the bar higher. It's contagious."
Firestone is hoping his ambitious new enterprise will do its part to rev up the arts in Tucson and elsewhere.
"You need an anchor," he says, "somebody able to bring a critical mass together. Something could happen here."