By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Occasionally an artist comes along who doesn't just present a unique vision, but crafts an entire imaginary world. Arthur Tress's "Wurlitzer Trilogy" defines and explores a mythical realm which mirrors our own, yet pushes past the stale boundaries of everyday discussion, into a metaphysical world. Tess himself will be here this Friday to discuss the exhibit, and, unfortunately, to preside over its closing. Exhibited during the summer months, his installation will be packed away by Sunday, making this the last chance to experience a truly remarkable and innovative project.
Combining the talents of a photographer, sculptor, illustrator, and with a wry political sense, Tress assembles garage-sale junk and 50's-era advertisements into incisive, insightful photographs. His small, vibrant prints are packed with detail and a telling irony, placing the tacky relics of a consumer culture into a mythological context. Telling a story with photographs and words, the trilogy uses vastly different techniques to sift through a semi-autobiographical record of a man's journey through crisis toward revelation. Along the way, many of the precepts and pretensions of our developing society are subject to Tress' biting wit.
The first section of the trilogy, Tea Pot Opera, is a miniature theater of the absurd, featuring a Victorian stage populated by "chatkas," kitchy junk sculptures, ornaments, and icons from American culture in the Postwar years from 1940-50. Marked by bright colors and forced optimism, these relics become performers in a mythical tale of self-discovery.
Each photograph is accompanied by descriptive phrases, telling the tale of a seeker who looks too far and finds nothing, only to discover that looking inward was the proper course. Told as an epic, the opera has elements of the great mythical journeys of Orpheus, Odysseus, and Icarus.
Dragging these kitsch objects into a mythological context has a dual effect. The shallow, tinpot optimism of the postwar years is completely exposed by Tress's unblinking eye, in brightly-lit photographs that parade the cheap artifacts of a bygone era.
Trapped on a claustrophobic stage that is the setting for every picture, hundreds of objects participate in a slow metamorphosis that exemplifies the ideology of that era: the enthusiastic embrace of technology, boundless optimism, and a lurking desire for conformity.
The absurd context, chatka as metaphor, also helps to free the viewer from any preconceived judgment, and adds humor and lightness to a weighty subject. These tiny photographs are dense, detailed, and utterly unique.
Fish Tank Sonata is the second part of the trilogy, and uses a similar vehicle, a confined setting, to a very different effect. A cast-iron fish tank becomes the stage, as a similar parade of ceramic figurines and art-glass bottles act out a second tale. This time the theme is an ecological one, as an unsuccessful fisherman meets a magical fish, who takes him on a journey to the bottom of the sea. Far from the bright cynicism of Tea Pot Opera, the cool colors and somber imagery invoke a meditative air.
Deceptively simple, these photographs, accompanied by charming pieces of verse, aggressively explore the impact of humans upon the environment, as well as how such destruction does spiritual and emotional harm to humankind. Shot in the outdoors at dozens of locations, many of these photographs could stand alone as master examples of the craft; when combined into a coherent tale, the effect is magical.
The final and most spectacular installment is Requiem for a Paperweight, the story of one man's struggle through corporate America, and the parallel struggle of human society as it attempts to assimilate into a technological culture. The 96 photos, staged as panels of 6 by 6, are fantastic examples of an arcane craft. Colored gels, glass, objects and transparencies are arranged into bizarre, colorful dioramas reminiscent of computer-generated works, then photographed. The resulting compositions have a hyperreal, almost hallucinatory blend of brilliant color and everyday objects, stripping away contexts and allowing Tress' vision to shine through. Snippets of 50's advertisements, photographs, and textbook art provide ironic comments on the increasing mechanization of our culture, and the controlling presence of the implacable marketplace. The principal character travels through an increasingly stifling and stigmatized world toward an epiphany, which may be, according to Tress, "a visual journey into the realms of the inner spaces of the mind."
This may be the last time for a long while that Tress' complete trilogy is available to the public. Combined with the opportunity to hear Tress himself comment on the exhibit, there are many reasons to see this innovative, insightful exhibit before it closesperhaps forever.
The Wurlitzer Trilogy is showing in the Center for Creative Photography, in the Ansel Adams gallery, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Saturdays. Arthur Tress' lecture will be held Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the gallery.
Read Next Article