Enter the Wild West. Hear the sound of a deep-voiced storyteller. Stop and smell the soap.
The Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art covers all the senses.
As you spiral farther and farther down the ramps of the museum you see what our state's artists have been up to, in sculpture, paintings and video.
There's artist Kathleen Scott, whose wall installation, "His and Hers," takes us to a world in the Old West.
And Simon Donovan's video installation where he uses his deep voice to tell a chilling tale about his childhood while using a pull-string doll.
More on the aroma of soap in a moment.
Guest curator Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, whittled the more than 1,200 pieces submitted by 476 artists down to 75 pieces from 45 artists.
The biennial "just reaffirms the amazing amount of talent in this state," said Julie Sasse, chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at TMA.
Sasse agreed to select five "must-sees" from the show, but choosing only five proved difficult. "I just feel there are far more than five good pieces in the show," she said.
The biennial exhibit "reaffirms the amazing amount of talent in this state,"Sasse said.
'It's What You Do With Time That Heals'
Artist: Fausto Fernandez.
Medium: His work combines spray paint, acrylic paint, wallpaper, sewing patterns, blueprints and roof tar - yes, roof tar - to tell a story about healing and time.
The experience: It's a clock that is broken down into several layers, juxtaposed by floral elements.
The piece stems from the phrase "time heals," Fernandez explained. But as the title says, there's more to the phrase.
Fernandez bases his work on the relationship between humans and machines. In this case, it is the mechanical representation of time and its relationship with how we heal.
What Sasse says: "What makes the work strong is it's just not designed for design's sake. It comments on society."
What the artist says:"I think a lot of people can identify with the clock and the title. I don't necessarily expect people to understand what my ideas behind it are, but I like that people just by reading the title and looking at the painting can make their own stories."
Artist: Alan Bur Johnson.
Medium: A wall mount of 334 photographic transparencies, individually placed with dissecting pins, spans 12 feet and protrudes about 2 inches from the wall.
The experience: The fusion of natural sciences and visual arts is unmistakable.
It was inspired by early-morning monsoon skies filled with insect wings. And it represents a scientific beauty that we might not notice from insects since we tend to squash them with a fly swatter.
An added feature is that when you walk by or when the air conditioning kicks in, the images actually flutter with the breeze.
What Sasse says: "(Johnson) pulls that whole essence of how to take nature out of its environment and look at it at a more taxonomic way."
What the artist says: "I think when you view it in person, you can see the delicacy of the wing imagery and how certain images meet up or are orientated toward a central plank along this centerline of the kind of heartbeat pattern."
Johnson wants the public to see that the natural world has fascinating elements.
"These pieces as a whole, I see as poetic documentations of the natural world," he said.
Artist: Denis Gillingwater.
Medium: Wall-mounted video camera, hanging photograph, convex security mirror and CCTV observation system.
The experience: Installed in the corner of the room, this striking piece is set at eye level. While you view the black-and-white picture of tourists looking at the Statue of Liberty, there is a surveillancelike camera panning across the mounted photograph and the convex mirror, transmitting to a television on the floor.
Looking at the television, you see yourself reflected on the screen, with the word "Suspects."
You first feel like an innocent bystander, then realize you're a suspect. For what? Who knows, but you're sure you're guilty.
What Sasse says: "Denis has looked at this idea of surveillance and the authoritative society for many years. What he's talking about in this work is this post-9/11 almost paranoia we have. This surveillance society, where every street corner has a camera trained on it. And we've learned to accept it because it's under the auspices of our safety.
"What I like about the piece is it makes you stop and think. It sparks debate and at the same time it's part of an interesting piece on an aesthetic level."
What the artist says: "The photograph started to suggest maybe a darker kind of side (to the Statue of Liberty) because in this thing of surveillance and this culture we are in, it's like everybody becomes a suspect. It just seems like there's a line that's been crossed in people making way too many assumptions about others."
Artist: Miles Conrad.
Medium: Installation made of and cast in soap.
The experience: Now we're back to that smell of soap.
The room installation is secluded from the main walkway, but draws curiosity with that familiar clean smell of soap.
Walking into the room, you are overpowered with the fragrance. You either want to try to breathe in as much of it as possible or hold your breath to avoid such a powerful aroma.
The installation not only engages your sense of smell, it also consumes your thoughts. It is set in a dark room, and you find yourself transported to an eerie setting: a cell at a mental institution, perhaps, or even a prison cell.
What Sasse says: "It's not just something that you can look at and walk on. It's a room installation in a dark room with very institutional kind of lighting. (Conrad) talks about society and systems of repression, but at the same time you are captured by that very recognizable scent. It haunts you. It's a haunting piece."
What the artist says: "My intention was to look at institutions and how they have the power to define our reality."
Conrad explained that the soap represents the social norms of hygiene and cleanliness, which define a hierarchy of those who have the luxury of cleanliness over those who do not.
'Cartograms of Memory'
Artist: Saskia Jordá.
Medium: This soft sculpture made of white industrial felt resembles a dinosaur skeleton meant to tell an abstract story about migration.
The experience: Set in the center of a warmly lit room, the installation stretches nearly wall to wall. To walk around it means to walk the perimeter of the room. At one point, you are engulfed in the shadows cast by the hanging portion of the flowing piece.
White ropes scrambled in the mix of the gooey globs of felt tie into the idea of mapping.
What Sasse says: "I think it's a strong piece because of its presence. You confront the piece and the piece confronts you."
What the artist says: "The large mesh kind of relates to the chaos or the sense of being displaced.
That connects to a floor portion that is gradually sort of finding a sense of placement.
If you visualize maps and pulling the lines on the maps, it turns into this three-dimensional web of sorts."
Jordá said the felt has a historical and a personal connection for her. She associates the material with comfort, which gives a sense of place. At the same time, felt has been used throughout history as the material for tents, which are easy to transport.
Jordá hopes that the viewers can relate in their own way from personal traveling experiences.
"Everybody has a story, especially in Arizona. A lot of people come from somewhere else."
If you go
2011 Arizona Biennial
• When: Now through Oct. 2.
• Where: Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.
• Cost: $8 with discounts available.
• Details: 624-2333 or tucsonmuseumofart.org
Serena Valdez is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at 573-4128 or at firstname.lastname@example.org