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'Tribute' At The Joseph Gross Gallery Celebrates 20 Years In Tucson's Art History.

By Margaret Regan

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  IN THE BEGINNING, there was the Educational Gallery. It was just a classroom, number 312 to be exact, in the University of Arizona art building. This was in the year 1957.

Then the university said, let the art history department expand, and by 1974 the Educational Gallery was no more. Three years passed--lean, gallery-less years--until an art professor brought forth a new student gallery at 830 E. Speedway, in 1977. And in the same year, Professor Howard Conant and Professor Harold Jones, a photographer, caused 101 Gallery to be created in the art building.

It came to pass in the next year that a chemical engineering professor by the name of Joseph Gross endowed the new 101 Gallery in memory of his father, Joseph Gross Sr., and its name was changed. From that day forward, with only one long interruption in the early 1990s, the UA has had Joseph Gross Gallery, to show the work not only of students and professors, but of artists known around the country. The hiatus was occasioned by a happy event: Liberated from classroom 101, Joseph Gross moved in 1993 to a brand-new structure of its own, bringing with it the old 830 student gallery, which was re-christened the Lionel Rombach Gallery.

A squat, square block of a building, Joseph Gross protrudes out of the art building into the plaza near the University of Arizona Museum entrance. In 1996, Alfred Quiróz's mural students painted on its upper perimeter a colorful frieze that illustrates nothing less than the whole history of world art.

Inside, the Gross Gallery may not always be quite so all-encompassing, but its 188 exhibitions over the years have certainly tried. The gallery has covered everything from the art of Shanghai to grad student shows to Mat Bevel's one man art attacks; and every genre from sculpture, painting and photography, to video, installation and performance art.

Tribute, the current exhibition, celebrates the gallery's 20th anniversary. While the show doesn't hint at some of the gallery's wilder times--all the works are on the wall, after all--it does gather fine works by 12 artists who've exhibited there over the years, including Tucsonans Jim Waid, Bailey Doogan, James G. Davis and Bruce McGrew. Gallery director Julie Sasse has also traced the site's eclectic history in a display of memorabilia, and in a prodigiously researched catalog that lists every single Joseph Gross show. The lists she's compiled make for a virtual who's who of Tucson artists, many of whom showed there in grad-student days, among them Cynthia Miller, Ann Keuper, Chip Pique, Joanne Kerrihard and Gary Benna.

A careful reading of the exhibition titles traces the not-always-understood connections between a curator's own concerns and the shows that actually get up on the walls. For instance, Joseph Gross opened up to cutting-edge feminist art in the early '80s, when it was run by Joanna Frueh, now a well-known feminist performance artist and art historian. Mat Bevel and performance artist Ellen came in when Gregory Sale, himself a performance and installation artist, directed the space in 1994 and 1995. Sasse, coming from a background in commercial galleries, has been on the job since then. She's worked toward a varied program, with plenty of MFA and professorial artists, interspersed with outsiders of reputation, such as photographer William Wegman and painters William T. Wiley and Anne Coe.

The posters and announcements from the early years are particularly intriguing. There were annual summer Banana shows in the late '70s and early '80s, when Jones was running the place. Artworks had to include a banana image. Photographer John Schaefer, the ex-president of the UA credited with the founding the Center for Creative Photography, and best known for sleek Southwest architectural photography, contributed a shot of Bailey Doogan as Whistler's Mother, devouring the yellow fruit.

Then there are reminders of careers at mid-stream or in the making. Todd Walker, the pioneering photographer and UA prof who died this summer, won a "faculty award" show in 1981. That same year, the artist formerly known as Margaret Bailey Doogan exhibited "female series drawings." Now known as Bailey Doogan, she's continued to create searing art of the aging female body, as her current one-person show now at the UAMA demonstrates. Doogan, a UA prof who will retire this year, is in the Tribute show, too, with "Ex Cathedra," a startling oil on linen that places a naked woman in the pope's (invisible) infallible chair.

The late photographer Hannah Wilke, who showed her "performalist self-portraits" at Joseph Gross way back in 1984, shared Doogan's passion for re-visioning the female body. The current show exhibits three of Wilke's color photographs, self-portraits of her ailing body shot not long before her death in 1993. Dovetailing eroticism and illness, she's posed herself naked on white bed sheets in what would be conventional cheesecake shots--peering over her shoulder, curving her arm over her head--but she wears a hospital wrist band and big, white hospital dressings are attached to her flesh.

Tribute is strong in painting, too. Kevin Sloan, a former star student (he got his master's at the UA in 1984) who's now a nationally respected painter, contributed the 1997 "Abundance," a sensuously painted acrylic on canvas that combines classical landscape with illusionist still life. Timothy McDowell, a 1981 grad of the master's program, is represented by "Corrected Orbit," a 1998 encaustic on birch that's an elegant abstraction in yellows and purples. Bruce McGrew, another UA prof who plans to retire at the end of the school year, is showing "Desert Flux," a sumptuous oil on canvas. In McGrew's curving greens and purples, the desert's forms are close to disappearing.

"Portrait of Joe Gross," a 1993 oil on canvas, is painter James G. Davis' own tribute to the man who has done so much for this little corner of Tucson's art history. Seated in front of a background painted in strong diagonals of gray and black, Gross is at a modern desk. He's ready to work, but he's surrounded by the things that he loves: Art history books stand everywhere in orderly rows, and circling all around him, on walls and cabinets, is a constellation of prints and paintings.

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