Since its debut in 1948, the Arizona Biennial has been a reliable barometer of art-making around the state by established and emerging artists. Often it has been guest-curated by someone from out-of-state, bringing fresh eyes to make the selection. For 2015, the involvement of Irene Hofmann, director and chief curator of the internationally known SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, has definitely kicked the exhibition up a notch. In her curator’s statement, Hofmann notes that after the selection of 50 works from the almost 1,500 submitted, four themes emerged: humankind’s impact upon nature; the artist’s reclamation of discarded materials; the commodification of violence; and the sheer seduction of a beautiful painting. In all these categories, there are exemplary works, but the nature/environmental advocacy theme is arguably the strongest, while also reflecting Arizona artists’ concerns with the fragility of the desert and looming human encroachment.
Setting the tone is an installation near the entrance called Preservation Woods (2015) by Carolyn Lavender of Phoenix. It is an arresting 13-foot-long scene, created with acrylic and graphite, of taxidermied animals in seemingly random placement amid a forest, connoting a disturbance of nature. Also nearby is An Act of Futility (2014) by Jennifer Holt of Flagstaff, in which a ghostly-white porcelain toy wagon holds an actual tumbleweed, as if to comment on the fleeting temporality of the desert. Perhaps less morose in its message is Getting Along (2014) by David Emitt Adams of Phoenix, who has placed a small tintype image of a desert landscape onto a crushed and rusted can that he found in the Sonoran desert. Several works do wade into political issues, the most thought-provoking being Cartographies: the Fallen 2 (2015) by Elizabeth Burden of Tucson, who presents an 8-foot-long US map with three colors of dots to delineate individuals killed by police in the days surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, along with officers killed in the line of duty in recent years. One particular work is an outlier in the best sense, summoning ideas on not only environmental impact, but also beauty and wonder. Follow the River (2015) by Patricia Sannit of Phoenix is an engaging metaphor for the continuum of civilization. Ceramic stumps of various sizes are incised with hieroglyphiclike symbols, then placed on the floor in a meandering “river” that stretches 40 feet. It is sophisticated work such as this that firmly places Arizona contemporary artists in league with their counterparts across the country.