Featured photo: Detail from “Preservation Woods” by Carolyn Lavender. All photos courtesy of the Tucson Museum of Art.
The 50 pieces in this year’s Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art are sure proof that contemporary art thrives in our state. About half of the 33 artists in the Biennial — a juried exhibition that has been going strong since 1948 — are from Tucson, and the rest hail from the Phoenix area, Clarkdale, Jerome and Flagstaff.
Every Biennial has a guest curator, often from out-of-state, and that person tends to bring unique perspectives, resulting in a different flavor to the exhibition every go-round, says Julie Sasse, the Tucson Museum of Art’s chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art. For 2015, the job went to Irene Hofmann, director of the internationally known SITE Santa Fe art space in New Mexico, and Hofmann (intentionally or not) leaned fairly heavily toward works with social messages. More than 1,400 works were submitted, by the way. Represented in the show are works tackling environmental concerns, such as humankind’s encroachment on the desert, as well as immigration concerns, and works commenting on our country’s surveillance tactics. In an informative tour of the show with the media, Sasse said viewers can recognize at least four themes: the beauty and fragility of nature; the reclamation of discarded or unusual objects for use in art; the commodification of violence; and the sheer seduction of a beautiful painting.
Regarding that first theme, an excellent example is Alan Bur Johnson’s “Murmuration 13:00:47,” a fastidiously installed collection of insect parts in lab slides, pinned to the wall to evoke flight. On the second theme, I liked a Jeffrey DaCosta mixed-media work that incorporates bulletproof Kevlar into huge golden eagle wings; the absence of a body between the wings evokes thoughts about sacrifices in the name of the military/industrial complex. Commenting on guns in society is John H. Clarke’s “255, 0, 255, 0 (Magnum),” a sleek, almost Pop, photographic rendition of a toy gun on a solid yellow background. As for the fourth theme, a Grant Wiggins painting called “A New Way of Thinking About Everything” lures you in with its neon colors and clean design, even as it resembles a mishmash of commercial logos.
The Biennial includes video installations, sculpture, photography, and surprising uses of unconventional materials in mixed-media works. Several of the pieces really resonated with me, but I’ll single out Patricia Sannit’s installation — a meandering “river” of ceramic stumps whose carvings recall maps of ancient civilizations. Also, I won’t forget the multi-sensory charm of an Ellen McMahon/Beth Weinstein installation, “Prone to Collapse,” that asks viewers to lie down and rest their heads on a bag of pine needles, then look up at a 360-degree image of a disappearing Southwestern forest.
If I have successfully piqued your interest in the Biennial, then know that it runs clear until October 11, 2015, and that you could truly make a day of it in the Old Pueblo, exploring the rest of the TMA and the Historic Block on which it’s situated, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson (see “Macro Sea Mobile Pools,” dumpsters turned into actual swimming pools), the gallery at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography, and a host of downtown galleries.