Once upon a time, before there was an Elliot's on Congress, before there was a Hub, before there was a modern streetcar, there was Dinnerware.
Way back in 1979, a gang of young artists who would go on to become some of the best-known and most-respected painters, photographers and sculptors in Tucson and beyond joined forces to create an artist-run co-op gallery.
Legend has it that the plot was hatched over a pitcher of beer at The Shanty, the still-existing hangout over on Fourth Avenue, by painters Jim Waid, Judith D'Agostino, Tom Cosgrove and others. They wanted a location downtown, somewhere among the boarded-up storefronts and dive bars. A lawyer offered to share her Congress Street digs with the wandering artists, and they set up shop across from her files.
Borrowing their name from the space's previous retail outlet—a vendor of ceramic plates and cups—they opened up the new Dinnerware Artists' Cooperative Gallery.
It would last 24 years.
An exhibition now on view at the Temple Gallery celebrates the first 12 of those years. (After just a time on the Hub block, Dinnerware landed permanently at 135 E. Congress, now occupied by Elliot's.)
The show offers up 34 recent works by 28 early artist-members who showed their art at the co-op, took turns sitting the gallery, endured endless meetings and did all the necessary scut work to create a place that not only nurtured local artists but introduced the community to cutting-edge work from out of town.
Even a quick stroll through the exhibition is a reminder of how important Dinnerware artists have been to the culture of this cowtown. They have been artists, teachers and even community activists who fought off a highway that would have decimated it the city center and whose presence helped trigger the restoration of downtown.
Bailey Doogan, now 75 and still painting, shows two small paintings of women, in gouache and oil on primed paper, rendered in gray and white, in her inimitable Old Master (or Old Mistress) style. Doogan was the first female prof in the UA art department, and when her all-male colleagues made an unfounded attempt to deny her tenure, an exasperated dean, Ed McCullough, overruled them.
Doogan went on to become a beloved teacher and celebrated feminist artist whose raw female nudes challenge conventional ideas about women's bodies. Widely written about in national publications, Doogan has an important piece in the permanent collection at the Brooklyn Museum—a massive grisaille canvas commemorating Mairead Farrell, an Irish rebel who was shot to death.
Another Dinnerware alum, Barbara Grygutis, routinely wins commissions by cities around the country to make public artworks that go beyond the statue-on-the-pedestal model and on into urban design. She has only a few pieces in Tucson, but here she gives locals a tiny taste of her work in "Signs and Symbols Glass Block," a set of three elegant glass forms from 2010.
"Arroyo Amarillo," a lively 2011 acrylic on paper contributed by founding member Waid, is a wild vision of the surreal plant forms and hot colors of the Sonoran Desert. A much-admired Tucson artist whose work is shown regularly around the country, the Oklahoma-born Waid started his career as an art prof at the fledgling Pima College in the 1970s. He once wrote that he first found himself "seduced" by the desert's cactus and light when he brought his students outside into the west campus's west.
Cynthia Miller, a longtime teacher in Tucson who decamped to Texas a few years back to found an art program at the University of Houston at Victoria, displays her recent "Blue Pomegranate." A kaleidoscope of naively painted fruits and flowers in pinks, yellows and blue, the work is one of Miller's "unstill lives," a term the artist Will Saunders once used to describe her cheerful mixed-media pieces that reverberate with life.
Among the other well-known artists are photographers Harold Jones, once the director of the Center for Creative Photography, Frances Murray Jones, Ann Simmons-Myers, recently retired head of the photo program at Pima College and Rene Verdugo. Also showing work are sculptor Curt Brill, who makes gorgeous, distended nudes in bronze, and painters Alfred Quiroz, a UA art prof who just had a major show at the UA Museum of art, David Andres, a Pima prof and skilled curator of the college's Bernal Gallery, and Gail Marcus-Orlen, a popular painter of exquisite—and surreal—dream-visions.
Chris Larsen, an immensely skilled watercolorist, shows a gleaming 2006 painting of an unlikely subject: a ditch in Marana. He's since gone on to making custom guitars.
Two fine painters with works in the show are now dead. Dean Narcho, a Tohono O'odham artist, made intense abstractions that get better and better as the years go on. The one here, "Final Peace" from 1988, is a thickly painted horizontal whose colors and textures echo the desert sands.
The late Greg Benson is represented by a characteristically childlike work, "1707 Displaced," an acrylic painted on a tall and narrow length of unstretched canvas. Benson's work always struck me as a parable about the West; "1707" is no exception. Crude kid drawings of cars, trucks and trains zoom around the perimeter; trapped inside this highway are Arizona's jagged mountains, prickly pears and deer.
If you wanted to pin down a Tucson style, you'd have to acknowledge the influence of the local landscape: the intense desert light, the sharply shaped cacti, the rolling mountains and the shifting colors of the infinite western sky.
But the Tucsonans who created Dinnerware are artists of their time, not just artists of their place. Contemporary practices abound here: these artists appropriate images, repurpose found objects, reinvent classic genres and delve into environmentalism, feminism and politics. The most timely political entry is sculptor Betty Harris's bronze and aluminum "GOP vs. Public Education." It features an out-of-control elephant joyfully stomping a pile of books.
It would have been nice if we could have seen before-and-after artworks—pieces the artists made in the 1980s and ones they're making now. But if you could only pick one period, better to show the art of today, works that testify to the fact that those young artists who colonized Congress long ago kept right on making art that matters, decade after decade after decade.