The competing forces of good and evil had a hand in the Aspen Fire, if you go by the artistic testimony at Raices Taller gallery.
A mixed media painting by Ceci Garcia has St. Francis of Assisi, friend of woodland creatures, standing by helplessly as orange flames rage out of control behind him. Equally helpless Tucsonans know how he feels.
St. Francis' saintly powers were useless against the forces of evil. Painter David Tineo has imagined that evil as a pair of Day of the Dead skeletons who mischievously set the forest afire.
The artists' explanation may be as good as any for the hellish fires that consumed the beloved trees of the Catalina Mountains. Their artwork is so up-to-the-minute it's downright prophetic. The group show, Raices and Friends y Tu Mamá También!, went up June 28, about the time huge clouds of deep-gray smoke settled like a shroud over Tucson.
Both pieces also serve as good introductions to the co-op gallery's worldview. Most of the members identify as Mexican or Chicano, and like many contemporary Latino artists, they play off traditional Hispanic folk forms in their work.
Garcia's painting is a takeoff on the retablo, the religious paintings on tin that memorialized a holy event in 19th-century Mexico, or offered up a painted prayer to a saint. Though she uses contemporary materials, bright acrylic on paper, and contemporary patterning around the edges, Garcia's work is still a religious offering. The fire notwithstanding, a trio of birds still pays homage to her St. Francis. And her lengthy title pays tribute to the retablo names so long they were more invocation than title: "St. Francis Mourning the Holy Mountain Stigmata by Fire (Santa Catalina Mountain Fire (Aspen Fire) 2003)." Stigmata is a good word for the mountain's wounds; like the scars on Jesus' hands and feet, Mount Lemmon's will last our lifetime, at least.
Tineo, best known for his many murals around town, likewise riffs on folk art, though he delves not into the sacred but the profane. His acrylic painting "Aspen Adelitas" draws on the familiar Day of the Dead imagery of living skeletons and skulls. His calaveras are a pair of wicked skeletal gal pals, duded up in skirts and high-heeled cowgirl boots. They're playing with fire. Beyond them is the forest that's about to burn, evoked by spatters of woodsy greens, cerulean and orange, painted against a backdrop of deep sylvan blue. There's no particular reason for the Adelitas' malevolence; it's as random as drought.
The fire saints and sinners are just two works in this summer show of 34 pieces, contributed both by Raices members and their invited guests. The jocular title, alluding to the movie, gives a nod to the gallery's expansiveness. Racies' mission, according to president John Salgado, is "to make the arts available to people who normally don't feel comfortable in a gallery. We have established artists as well as emerging artists."
That idealistic formulation often leads to financial disaster, and Salgado acknowledges, "We struggled for a while. We almost closed." But the member artists agreed to up their dues, and they got much-needed income by renting out the back studio to painter Gonzalo Espinosa. (Another public artist, Espinosa has a couple of works in the show, including the big acrylic on canvas "Sus Pies Largos/Her Long Feet.") The gallery won its nonprofit status last year and nowadays is on firm footing, Salgado says.
The 7-year-old Raices is located in a prime red-brick building in the Warehouse District. While the official downtown Arts District seems to be dying a not-so-slow death--Dinnerware has decamped and Central Arts Collective shut down--the Warehouse District is doing fine, gallery-wise. Davis Dominguez and Muse are both near Raices, and Dinnerware is moving in down the street, next to the Drawing Studio on Fourth Avenue. The respected photography gallery Metroform is also expected to move nearby from downtown.
Raices bridges the gap between high-level galleries of established artists and messy collectives of newcomers. Thus, a big Tucson name like Alfred Quiróz is in the show, along with relative unknowns. Quiróz has delivered a fine watercolor about the hypocrisy of the upper classes toward the wretched of Mexico. "La Gloria de los Indios" pictures a swanky art crowd and the media slavering over a large pre-Columbian Indian carved head in a museum. In the gutter outside, in cardboard boxes nearly crushed by the museum, live real, desperately poor and utterly ignored Mexican Indians.
But along with such Hispanic-oriented work, the diverse show, as its bilingual title suggests, has artists of every ethnicity. Maurice Grossman exhibits lattice houses in pungently colored ceramic, and Richard Zelens displays a dense, decorative flower painting, "At the Garden's Edge." (Zelens runs his own Gallery Four Ten on Fort Lowell.) Navajo artist Glory Tacheenie-Campoy investigated cowboy-and-Indian myths in "Three People on a Mesa," a work of acrylic and stamps that has the heroic cowboys dressed in pastels and posies. Martin Quintanilla's "Politically Correct," another up-to-the-minute work, is a scathing denunciation of the war in Iraq. Gold-spangled toy soldiers line a painting full of blood and bombs, and the word "lies" is hand-lettered on all four sides of the crude wooden frame.
A couple of artists new to me contributed wonderful pieces. Carmen Gutierrez made a pair of colored etchings that, despite their Spanish titles, have a dark, Eastern European ambience. "De Regreso a Casa" ("The Return Home") is a beautifully drawn architectural interior, all vaulted ceiling and perspective lines rushing toward the vanishing point. The returning traveler stands in an open doorway that floods the dark hallway with light, but he cannot see the family member--or ghost--who hovers nearby.
Jeffrey Schwartz has created a series of cemetery pieces just as atmospheric as Gutierrez' etchings and as dense with understated emotion. But he distorts his landscapes dramatically. In "Going into the Cemetery," he reduces the grassy knoll of the cemetery to a swoop of dark green; the stepping stones to the grave become mere slabs of gray-white. Rendered in broad swathes of pleasantly unfussy pastel, this is an emotionally uncertain landscape, a world unmoored by death.
"Going into the Cemetery" does not picture death, the way Tineo's skeletons do, and it does not represent destruction, as Garcia's flames do. But it renders grief brilliantly, and makes it palpable.