Spending time with the work of painter Sam Woolcott and sculptor Poe Dismuke, currently on exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is like a spectacularly successful visit to the eye doctor, or perhaps the third-eye doctor: Your vision is vastly improved--widened, deepened, sharpened. That’s because Sam and Poe are above all seers. They see in fresh, exciting, disturbing, delighting, perspective-shifting and world-altering forms, and their work invites you to see more and see better.
Each performs that miracle in a different way. Way different.
Sam’s paintings in this show, especially those of houses and other buildings, chronicle various stages of decay and regeneration, and force us to think about which is which. Is that ruination she’s showing us or reclamation, as plant and mineral life take over and obliterate an edifice--or is it both? Standing before her gorgeously rendered paintings, sometimes subtly including real-life ephemera like bits of old wallpaper or receipts from a defunct diner, should we be mourning ruination, or celebrating transformation--or both? The “or both” is what gives the work its tremendous power, along with its skewed beauty and Sam’s intense observation of ordinary and extraordinary processes, all inexorable, that we might otherwise miss or purposely ignore. Her paintings want us not to look away, and to accept mutability as the way of the world. Sam insists that we see what’s there, in the world and in the paintings.
Poe, on the other hand, insists that we see what isn’t there. In his marvelously intricate kinetic sculptures built of ingeniously deployed detritus and deftly fabricated pieces, and in other works, he’s telling us that the imagined can be manifested by those who are gifted and skilled, and who dare to commit to their insight. To read more about his extraordinary work, see “Fitz’s Fish” by Kay Ryan.
As different from one another as the artists seem to be, their works share rigor, tenderness, intuition, inventiveness, and courage. And really, each is asking us to perform what ultimately amounts to the same act: opening ourselves simultaneously (and bravely, and joyfully) to what is and what could be. To be tugged in both directions at once in their astonishing and satisfying show is to be rejiggered, knocked on kilter, put back in balance.
Judith Stone is the author of When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race
This sculpture is the size and shape of a big taxidermied sailfish because it’s constructed on top of one. That is, way underneath the layers of artful accretion in the very middle is a ruined sailfish retrieved from a debris box. This sort of transformation is characteristic of Poe Dismuke’s work, almost always the conversion of something miserably wrecked into something strangely found. In this case, it’s a great burst of blue sailfish with tall fabric fins ribbed with the top ends of salvaged fishing poles, the metal guides of which peep out to create the improbable illusion of a 2-D blue circus tent. The new fish, papered with distressed sardine-can labels, is all strung and swagged with fish-related impedimenta, a complex of lines and old weights from his grandfather’s tackle box. Then it is rigged with rubber tubes for a new kind of breathing apparatus to take advantage of the different air a Dismuke sculpture generates. It’s got deep-loss sadnesses in it, from down in the sea, with the first fish; it has nostalgia; and it has exuberant joy in construction, making something that resembles something but liberated from suffering.