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“Livin’ Large”

Big paintings from the power-charged 1980s ignite the Tucson Museum Art

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Three art students, dressed in black and sporting nose studs, were dazzled one afternoon last week by the "Livin' Large" exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art.

"It's perfect," one young woman said to her equally enraptured friends as they left the galleries. "I wouldn't do anything to change it."

Neither would I.

Dozens of gigantic 1980s paintings, bold, brilliantly colored and beautifully painted in thick brushy strokes, are vibrating on every wall of over the museum's main galleries. Expertly curated by Dr. Julie Sasse of the museum from TMA's permanent collections, "Livin' Large" captures the exuberance of the go-go '80s in paint.

"Enchantment of Nature," by John McNamara, pictured above, is a case in point. An oil on canvas, enormous at 15 feet high by 18 feet wide, "Enchantment" suggests roiling nature overtaking a city. Loosely painted trees soar up from the bottom corners, obscuring the vague outlines of a block of urban buildings. Above, some of those towers—in New York City?—seem to be metamorphosing into mountains.

The paint itself is a main character in this drama: McNamara's brushstrokes writhe and swirl and drip across the surface, going from glowering darks at the edges to luminous whites and yellows at the center.

Another work's painting technique is so dramatic that it literally starred in a movie. Chuck Connelly's 1988 "Bridge to Nowhere," another behemoth, 18 feet long and 7 ½ feet high, was in the 1989 anthology film New York Stories. In Martin Scorsese's section, "Life Lessons," Nick Nolte played a troubled painter, and the close-up scenes of "Bridge" being painted (by Connelly's hand) are among the movie's most dynamic.

The work is mostly an abstraction, but a dark and brooding bridge—part Brooklyn, part London—emerges murkily from the whirl of gyrating dashes of paint.

The McNamara and Connelly works, and many other paintings in the show, were part a large cache of artwork donated by William and Susan Small back in 1995, a gift that in an instant strengthened the museum's holdings in work from the 1980s. (See "Hidden Treasures: Bill Small's Big Collection," http://www.tucsonweekly.com/tw/02-08-96/cover.htm.)

As Sasse explains in a curator's note, the '80s were years of creative ferment. Everything about the decade seemed big, including the much-lamented fashions of big shoulders and big hair. New fortunes made on Wall Street helped big art become big business, and artists obliged with works that galloped from pure abstraction to Neo-Expressionism to figuration and landscape.

Terence LaNoue's "Castle of the Winds: Atlantis," a mixed media on canvas from 1988 -1990 embodies all these trends all by itself. The work's three pieces of unstretched canvas, joined together and dangling a few inches from the wall, creates a shifting, undulating surface for explosions of colors and lines. Checkerboards, spirals and patterns of all kinds rocket across the canvas, suggesting everything from indigenous weavings to cells to plants while celebrating pure shape and color.

Linda Besemer's gorgeous "Quilt," 1985, is smaller but no less wild. It—more or less—pictures a quilt on brass bed, but you hardly notice that, what with its shooting diagonals and pungent lime greens and golds and reds and pinks. The wall text tells us that this riot of color and pattern is about love gone bad. Maybe, but "Quilt" is also a supremely self-assured homage to women's power: it transforms the old female craft of needlework into high and bold art.

"Healing Gardens Series: All Soul's Day" is a 1988 masterpiece by Puerto Rican artist Raphael Collazo, who would die young of AIDS two years after this work was finished. It's another big one, a mixed media painted on two joined panels about 10 feet high. Light radiates from every corner of this textured, almost 3-D work, which has wonderful pale colors like spring green and sky blue and soft yellow floating everywhere.

Another artist who died young, the local Tohono O'odham painter Dean Narcho, gets a welcome second look with the airing of his work "Untitled," a 1986 acrylic on canvas. Narcho was an abstractionist and pattern painter who studied under Jim Waid at Pima College, and this piece shows just how good he was. It's another big one, at 5 ½ feet high by 10 feet wide, but serene. In Narcho's hands, a flotilla of pale blue snakes passing over a color field of orange and yellow becomes something rich and strange.

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