Inspired by the light

In Tucson you'll find art in the most amazing places
Lawrence W. Cheek

Candice Davis and Mike Dominguez's contemporary-art gallery in Tucson resides in the roomy shell of a former Packard dealership built in the 1930s. It's a terrific space in a lousy neighborhood for art, as the passing traffic is usually vectored into the wheel-alignment shop on the block. But in Tucson, location hardly ever matters: Art is everywhere, and it's continually bumping into people who aren't expecting it.

You might have a life-changing encounter with art in one of the conventional venues - thousands of people have dropped jaw to floor on first viewing Luis Jimenez's Man on Fire in the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA). It's a larger-than-life fiberglass sculpture of a man whose hair morphs into a streak of flame. But you might also stumble upon the Alene Dunlap Smith Memorial Garden (520/624-0595), a pocket park and sculpture garden designed by Barbara Grygutis and tucked into Granada Avenue, Tucson's mansion row of a century past. Or you might happen to drive by any of the several locations of the local restaurant chain Mariscos Chihuahua, note the glorious seascape mural on an outdoor wall, and only later translate the delicious irony: Mariscos means "seafood," and Chihuahua is a landlocked Mexican state. The chain has five locations with murals inside and out. The most fanciful art is at 999 North Swan Road (open daily; 520/881-2372), a location known for its shrimp specials.

 

COLLIDING CULTURES INSPIRE RICH, DIVERSE ART

Tucson's flourishing visual-arts scene is strikingly rich and varied. Downtown, the Tucson Museum of Art, for example, sprawls through five buildings ranging from the adobe 1867 Edward Nye Fish House to the main gallery building designed in 1970s concrete Brutalist idiom. Its exhibits reflect the region's farrago of cultures- there's a great collection of bizarre and sophisticated pre-Columbian effigy figures dating from 200 b.c. to a.d. 1200, a wing for Western American art, and works of contemporary realism in the main gallery.

On the University of Arizona campus, UAMA has a substantial collection of 20th-century American and European Renaissance paintings. Look carefully at the 26-panel Retablo of Ciudad Rodrigo, painted in Spain in the 1480s, and you might spot the cannonball hole attributed to Napoleon's Iberian invasion. The museum's contemporary shows can be edgy. In collaboration with the campus's Center for Creative Photography (CCP), UAMA welcomed an artist who designed an exhibit of dolls robed in Ku Klux Klan sheets. "If it's art that's controversial just to be controversial, that doesn't interest us," says UAMA director Charles Guerin. "But if it's great art that happens to be controversial, there's no reason for us to avoid it. We're kind of protected by academic freedom."

The Center for Creative Photography was founded in 1975 by former UA president John P. Schaefer, who is a serious photographer and enthusiast of the medium. When Schaefer asked Ansel Adams if he might be interested in entrusting the university with his archives, Adams countered with a more ambitious vision, challenging Schaefer to create a repository for an entire constellation of photographic artists. The museum today holds the works of more than 50 esteemed American photographers, including Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston - and, of course, Adams.

"There's no facility like this on any university campus in the world," says CCP director Douglas Nickel. Visitors can browse a gallery of changing exhibits and (by appointment) research the vast archives of negatives, prints, and manuscripts.

 

"THE SOUL OF MY WORK CHANGED"

Unlike Sedona and Scottsdale, Arizona's other nerve centers of art, Tucson has no single geographical cluster of galleries. But there's an amazing variety, from the contemporary art that Davis and Dominguez show to the brilliant Southwestern works of the late Arizona artist Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia. The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun occupies a beautiful adobe; an equally pretty mission stands nearby. Various other galleries major in photography, contemporary glass, Western American art, Hispanic folk art and furniture, and Native American art.

Among the most intriguing is Old Town Artisans (open daily; 201 N. Court Ave.; 520/623-6024). The 1850s adobe compound houses seven galleries and La Cocina Restaurant & Cantina, which is a good stop for lunch.

"Tucson has a very strong contingent of professional contemporary artists," says Dominguez. "We have three strong museums. And the university has produced a lot of today's players through its MFA program. We also have beautiful, clear light, and that's very important to painters, especially."

Lynn Taber, who shows at Mark Sublette, Medicine Man Gallery, is one of those painters. She moved to Tucson from Chicago in 1970, and almost immediately the fierce light and sharp shadows changed her art. She became fascinated with luminosity and iridescence, and over the last three-plus decades, her style has progressed through half a dozen phases, all of them exploring different aspects of light. Her current obsession is the sky. "If I hadn't come to Tucson, none of this would have found its way into my work," she says. "My paintings in Chicago were dark, dark, dark, dark, dark."

"The other thing that happened is harder to describe," Taber adds. "The soul of my work changed. It had something to do with the quiet, the peace, the serenity, listening to the crickets, watching the hawks soar. I read a lot, thought a lot - things like 'who are we?' I turned inward, and that found its way into my paintings."

 

ART IN SOME OF THE MOST AMAZING PLACES

The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. 9-5 Mon-Fri, noon-5 Sat-Sun; free. 1030 N. Olive (520) 621-7968.

Tucson Museum of Art. 10-4 Mon-Sat, noon-4 Sun; $5 (free Sun). 140 N. Main Ave.; (520) 624-2333.

University of Arizona Museum of Art. 9-5 Tue-Fri, noon-4 Sat- Sun; free. Park Ave. at Speedway Blvd.; (520) 621-7567.