Some things in Arizona you can count on every single year. The annual late May onslaught of crushing heat. The Legislature's ritual dismemberment of public education. The bulldozing of desert land.
But every two years, just as inevitably, the Tucson Museum of Art does something more fun than all of the above. Its Arizona Biennial exhibition ambitiously--and naughtily--redefines art in the state. The Biennial used to be an encyclopedic exhibition of all art Arizonan from cowboy to crafts. But ever since it went contemporary back in 1999, it has routinely delivered the shock of the new, with each edition offering up ever more outrageous definitions of what art is.
Consider: This year, the competition was fierce, with just 46 Arizona artists chosen from among 344 who entered (a 13 percent acceptance rate). Among their 57 works selected, from among 869 submitted, is a greeting card rack, just like the one you might see down at the drugstore, only all the cards have already been sold ("True Greetings--Card Rack" by Barbara Bergstrom). In another piece, two cardboard signs hand-lettered by homeless people--"Please Help" and "God Bless You Hungry"--have been purchased by an artist and framed behind glass ("Untitled--Homeless Series" by Rick Levinson). A hanging aluminum cube is embedded with wiggly eyes of the kind that adorn children's stuffed animals ("Space Age Cube" by Bill Dambrova). And a real-life car door frames a lighted photograph ("Objectification Through Isolation" by Sara Abbott).
One artist at the opening last Friday confided that a lot of locals don't like the Biennial's new radicalism. Toby Kamps, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, who served as guest curator, cheerfully admitted in a catalog statement that he did indeed "look for work that breaks with tradition." But he used traditional principles of excellence. His criteria for selection, he wrote in a statement, were "simple. I looked for technical skill, a powerful idea, and inspiration and originality."
Truth be told, even the most avant-garde of the works ironically obey these classical rules. Levinson's homeless signs, for instance, are among the most moving works in the show. Most of the time, such signs fade anonymously into the streetscape, but here, the artist has rescued them from the urban background and put them into the foreground. Framed and displayed in a museum, the work forces us to notice, and at long last to think about, the people who make these desperate marks on cardboard.
Bergstrom's card rack is hilarious, but it is likewise a commentary on contemporary self-absorption. Most of the sold-out greeting cards, her notices tell us, were "Thinking of Me" cards. I must admit, I'm not too clear on Dambrova's wiggly eyes, but I took a shine to Abbott's car-door frame. It's a lovely, even haunting, evocation of the road and the land and the way they merge here.
They may not all be beautiful, but these nontraditional pieces have the great virtue of taking objects we don't think of as art and jolting us into looking at them in new ways. And besides, Biennial '03 has no shortage of fine works in traditional media. Though the old-time potters who used to dominate the show will be disappointed to find no ceramics, there's plenty of pure painting, photography and drawing. Sculpture is scarce, but there's a wooden carving, a metal sculpture and a reworked "Victoire de Samothrace" (James A. Cook's "American Book of the Dead: La Victoire de Sans-Une-Trace").
In fact, painters won the two top prizes in the show, and their wildly divergent works illustrate the medium's polar trends. Alfred Quiróz, a UA painting prof, took the first-place Pat Mutterer Memorial Award for "Border Is-Shoes," an acrylic on canvas. Olivier Mosset, a minimalist Swiss painter resident in Tucson who had a big show at the UA Museum of Art this winter, won second place for "Untitled," a series of three large painted yellow circles, all oil on canvas. The political conscience of the Tucson art world, Quiróz has long made what some critics have called "hystorical narrative." Equal parts research and rage, his cartoon-like paintings skewer assorted American injustices. This time around, the target is NAFTA and preferential U.S. border policies. While welcoming in a Canadian Mountie and a horde of cheerful Canadians, a painted Border Patrol agent carelessly shoots a Central American in the head.
If Quiróz makes the modern equivalent of history painting, Mosset leaches painting of all narrative meaning. His work is smoothly painted to allow no hint of brushwork, no trace of figuration. "Untitled" is yellow circles, nothing more. In a world saturated with meaningless commercial images, his blank painting is a gift of emptiness. It's the viewer who must do all the work.
By contrast to Mosset, Elizabeth Lonergan revels in the old-fashioned illusionistic powers of painting; her "Tomato" is a precise still life shimmering with reflective metal and glass surfaces.
A couple of painters go so far back in retro directions that that their painting is avant-garde again. Doug Shelton's cornball "Tiki Moon," which would be at home in a faux-Polynesian restaurant, is densely packed with carved jungle gods. One presumes it's all irony; the same goes for Daniel Britton's "Skinny Bather," a deliberately old-time picture of naked people on the beach. The mood changes yet again in drawings by Chris Rush. Rendered in conté crayon, that most Old World of media, his luminous depictions of people with physical deformities are like Old Masters--hushed, sacred and full of light.
Photography is similarly split. In the straightforward, documentary camp, Jesse Burke has three fine trailer pix in rich color, and Christine Cescenzi captured decked-out black women on Martin Luther King Day. But Phoenix artist Mehmet Dogu, a trained architect, literally pushes the limits on photography. He's enlarged a single 35-millimeter image of a Berlin museum as big as it can get, and then exploded it into nine pieces.
Other standouts include Ellen McMahon, who's chronicled her maternal journey from baby undershirts to teen déshabille; she updates us in text and photograph on an unusual body project taken in collaboration with her teenage daughter. Prize winner Daniel Peltz effectively deconstructs the anthropological interview in a video of an interaction between an African actress and her interlocutor. And Michael A. Maglich's quirky mixed-media work, an homage to his grandfather consisting of five little early-modern cubist paintings on curving birch, is a cross between humble craft and highfalutin' painting. Its title helps us see how it touches on the lofty subjects of immigration, diaspora and cultural identity, and the relative merits of popular and fine arts. In a way, it comments on the whole show, asking what's art, what's not, and who gets to do it.
Not to mention that its name, reproduced here in its entirety, ought certainly ought to have won the prize for best title: "Five Hungarian Avant-Garde Paintings My Grandfather Might Have Done Had He Not Emigrated From Kis Pets, Hungary, to Buffalo, New York, in 1910 and Played the Accordion Instead."