From canvas to aluminum: exhibit lets faculty shine

By Michael Eilers

Arizona Daily Wildcat

he installation is a secret, quiet space," artist and professor Barbara Penn said of her piece in the 1995 Art Faculty Exhibition. The large room "requires that people spend enough time in there to allow their own associations to surfacečpeople are always looking to the artist to fill in the gaps for them, unaware that art takes place inside." There was a hint of a smile when she said, "I want them to do a little bit of work."

Work is precisely what the Faculty Exhibition in all about: the paintings, sculptures, and other creations by thirty-four UA faculty members now fill the main gallery of the Museum of Art, providing a showcase for the tremendous talent and diversity within the department. From meticulous illustration to abstract sculptures of plaster and aluminum, from unstretched, raw canvasses to the most elaborate installations, this show runs the gamut of contemporary art.

"I think the show is a barometer of current art movements and what's going on in classes," museum director Peter Bermingham said. The tradition of the show goes back 20 years, an annual showcase of faculty work. Bermingham also felt that "the variety of the show has increased enormously, especially in the past 6 to 7 years."

Being the featured artist of the exhibition has certain advantages, as Barbara Penn discovered. She was given the entire front room for her installation, which had a definite effect on the final result. "The exciting part was that I could be in the site and let the work come together based on the space," she said.

The result is an intriguing and enigmatic installation, filled with 5 individual works that are united by materials, inspiration, and atmosphere. At first glance, the installation seems to be the sort of thing that gets conservative Republicans hopping mad: impenetrable, mysterious, and self-indulgent work that has no clear "purpose." Yet after a few minutes spent walking around the white-on-white room, this "secret, quiet space" becomes increasingly complex and rich with detail.

Beginning with the dense, often cryptic words of the poet Emily Dickinson, Penn devised a simple, repeating set of symbols. Plaster eggs, blackboards and slates, plaster dental molds, and the written word combine to sketch out a self-contained symbolic world. No symbol has one exact meaning; instead the repetition of forms (piles of eggs, stacks of slates, rows and rows of teeth molds) complicates and deepens the metaphors.

In many ways the installation is about the regimentation of learning, and the way knowledge can be lost in the desire to create identically educated students. "728, Let Us Play Yesterday," the central piece of the installation, features (among other things) a blackboard filled with excerpts of an Emily Dickinson poem of the same title. Below this is an open textbook similar to a grade-school "reader," with the same poem displayed. By examining the two, it becomes apparent that the poems differ in significant ways, and the poem on the board, displayed the way Dickinson wrote it, has been altered and "regularized" in the textbook below.

According to Penn, this is an example of "the loss that takes place between society's dictation and the truth," when objects that are difficult to deal withčsuch as Dickinson's confusing, interrupted versečare smoothed over and simplified.

Nothing, however, is smoothed over or simplified in the faculty work that fills the rest of the museum. It is a show of such breadth and depth of media and subject matter that the only things uniting it are the vivid contrasts in style and the overall level of talent. The deep, luminous Impressionistic landscapes created by Bruce McGrew could not be more different from the wildly colored, wickedly ironic pieces of Alfred Quiroz. Melody Peters' exhibit of architectural forms and facades seems to come from another world entirely than the lushly detailed illustrations of David Christiana or Joe Labate's murky, haunting photo series. The breadth of work doesn't just cover variations in media or subject matter; it reveals completely unique approaches in ideology and attitude by every artist.

There is also a marked emphasis on "new media" in the show, with several artists showing digitally-produced works that reflect both the influence and ubiquitous nature of computers in our society. Craig Caldwell's thermal-wax prints have the pixilated look of computer-produced artwork, yet retain an eerie organicism, much like vivid Rorschach prints. Andrew Polk contributed prints produced in Photoshop and printed on a color laser printer, yet the final effect is anything but mechanical. Both artists have discovered how to push the digital medium past decoration to artwork, by emphasizing the strengths, such as an endless variety of forms, and minimizing the weaknesses, by avoiding repetition and canned effects.

Other digital pieces include a series of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of Gayle Wimmer's brain, part of a fascinating piece about her father's death, and the huge typeset sign that towers over Joyan Saunders' "Wall for A."

The breadth of work also reveals a desire by the artists to work in a variety of forms, shattering the widely held assumption that most artists stay within a principal medium. Melody Peters' installation reveals the skills of a draftsman, architect, and artist, and is arranged on the wall with a keen sense of the visual effect produced. The ghostly, frail charcoal sketches by Rosemarie Bernardi are sealed in heavy, black wooden frames and arranged as a triptych, giving the piece a sinister air. Alfred Quiroz' "Pachuco Codex" is a series of icon-like boxes, miniature dioramas that combine woodcraft with his distinctive humor and painter's skills.

No work showcases this desire more than Penn's installation. To create it, she had to be a carpenter, set designer, lighting designer, and showcase a dozen more skills to make the exhibit come together. While working with the space she conquered several obstacles, including plastering over an existing doorway and incorporating a huge pylon, which couldn't be removed from the room, into her principal piece. The result is a catalog of the impossible, with piles of eggs stacked meticulously in corners, phantom staircases ascending into the open air, and shadows that seem to be an extension of the artwork which casts them upon the wall.

"This show functions to introduce students to the faculty, and give them a sense of their interests and methods," Peter Bermingham said. In that sense, the show is a success, simply because it has such variety that every visitor will find something to admire, and perhaps emulate. This show is a once-a-year glimpse at the immense level of talent and range of mediums created by the faculty. If the Arts are the "right brain" of the University, then every student should feel compelled to see this showčif all you see are chalkboard diagrams and lecture halls, you're only getting half the picture.

"Poetry does not inform or teach, it unfolds a visual experience," Barbara Penn said of Emily Dickinson's work. That seems to be the sense of this faculty exhibitiončart produced not as the result of instruction, but with the desire and courage to push past everyday ideas into new ways of seeing the world.

The 1995 Art Faculty Exhibition is showing through October 1st at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, etc. Hours are 9-5 Monday through Friday, closed Saturdays, Sunday 12-5.

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