"Did I dream you were a tourist in the Arizona sun? I can see you there with luna moths and watermelon gum" — from You by R.E.M.
For ceramic artist Wesley Anderegg, Arizona is a state of mind, and he might picture you there with a can of Coors sooner than with luna moths. But who knows? You shouldn’t put anything past him. After all, Anderegg would gladly trade in stereotypical cowboys roping steers for quirky characters on hobby horses, or for dreamers floating in the sky, high above the saguaro. About two dozen ceramic tiles depicting life in Arizona, as filtered through the wry and surreal mind of the artist, are on exhibit at Form & Concept, each one measuring about 12 by 12 inches and about an inch and a half thick.
“The series didn’t start out being about Arizona, but after about three of the tiles, I started to get a lot more personal, and then I got the idea to make it about Arizona,” said Anderegg, who spent his childhood in the Sunset State. “It was the first time I ever put cactus in a piece. Growing up in Phoenix, you see every painting’s got saguaro in it, and you just go, ‘OK, that’s way overworked.’ But now, 60 years later, you kind of go, ‘Well, I can do it now. I’m over it.’ ”
If Arizona represents memories of the artist’s youth, from a viewer’s perspective, they’re rather generalized and nonspecific. Each tile contains a scene, many of them with desert landscapes that do suggest Arizona to the audience. But others give no real indication of place except, sometimes, in the titles, such as Pretty Arizona Girls Drink Coors and Arizona Lady with Prickly People. The tiles are a departure from the kinds of works that Anderegg, a sculptor, normally makes. Among his staples is a series of Head Spinners, ceramic figures in the round with heads that turn, revealing a different face on one side than the other. His other sculptures, some of which are available at Form & Concept, are portraits of everyday people: odd, stiff figures with realistically painted eyes and wide, toothy mouths open in expressionless grimaces. The same types of faces adorn the figures in his Arizona tiles.
All of his work has an affinity with rustic folk and outsider art forms. “They were scarier when I first began,” he said. “In a way, I am pretty much self-taught. I took a survey course to kind of learn the basics, but I don’t have a BFA or MFA, or any of that. I started making these pinched cups and I wanted them to be really gnarly people, right? I didn’t want them to be cutesy. I had a whole mindset. I wanted these guys to be angry little people. That’s kind of what I was going for. And then you just keep making them and they just kind of developed into who they were. They were totally unique to me and I just stayed with them. Everything’s kind of personalized, but I don’t want to put my face on it. I use my guys or my ladies to do that.”
There’s some irony in the fact that Anderegg, who lives in California, mounted the show in New Mexico rather than his home state. But he seems to have a love-hate relationship with Arizona. “Everybody that lives in New Mexico goes to Arizona every once in a while,” he said in an artist statement about the show. “That’s the only reason Arizona exists, is to drive through to go to California.” Anderegg came to ceramics on a whim, having first entered Arizona State University as a geography major, but his heart wasn’t in it. “It’s a long story, but I was a real screw-up in high school,” he said. “After high school, I was basically working really bad jobs. My mom said, ‘Maybe you should go to college.’ Of course, I couldn’t get into a university, so I went to community college to get some grades and then my mom enrolled me at ASU and she picked my major. So there I was, going to school. She said, ‘If you get a degree in geography, maybe you can be a teacher.’ I was taking all these courses and they were just boring as hell. So I took a ceramics class as an elective and that was the end of it. I just fell in love with it. So it was more about boredom than anything else.”
Each tile has an open-ended narrative, but there’s no one story connecting them. “Each one is its own little blip,” he said. The individual scenes are vignettes that seem inspired more by place than by memory, although reminiscing did provide Anderegg with the impetus to make the show about Arizona. “It may have had something to do with reconnecting with a lot of my high school friends on Facebook,” he said. “You start thinking about all those people you forgot about for 40 years. Then you get on Facebook and they all contact you. Then you start thinking about all the stuff you guys used to do together. Maybe that was part of it. Plus, I wanted to do something that was strictly mine. I don’t like to look at a lot of historic artwork and get inspiration that way. I kind of like to dig personally. So, thinking about growing up, it just came right out.”
Anderegg’s skill as a painter can be seen in the tile work. The backgrounds of many of the exterior scenes are rendered with a degree of realism and painted in alluring colors that are redolent of the Southwestern desert. Depictions of animals, particularly birds, some of them made up and some based on actual native species, range from naturalistic — such as those in his Roadrunner and Quail and Cactus — to more stylized and cartoonish, such as his Arizona Night Bird, a light-colored bird on a dark background, and Arizona Day Bird, a dark-colored bird on a light background. His Arizona Jackrabbit has the same type of angry face he gives to his human figures. With its impossibly large ears and stumpy body, however, the jackrabbit looks somewhere between creepy and adorable. Painting with glazes, which are a different color pre- and post-firing, was a risk because Anderegg didn’t really know how effective the color would be until after taking the work from the kiln. The tiles’ surface textures vary, but most are some combination of gloss and matte finishes that make elements such as foreground and background features stand out from one another. “I’ve used glazes on my sculptures for years, but mostly it’s kind of like a coating. I started to figure out how I can paint with them. It’s kind of weird to paint with them, but that was the fun part of the challenge. Most painters don’t stick their painting in an 1,800-degree oven after they’re done and say, ‘Hey, I hope this thing comes out.’ ”
The Coors beer can is a recurring motif in the work. One surmises that under the dry, hot Arizona sun, it’s one way to cool off. It’s just the type of detail one imagines an offbeat artist like Anderegg would fixate on. “Growing up in Phoenix in the ’60s, it was pretty lonesome out there,” he said. “It was before air-conditioning. Air-conditioning is the reason people started moving to Phoenix. Before then, if you had to live in that desert without air-conditioning it was not fun. Then the boom happened in the ’70s and ’80s. Growing up there, you felt like, ‘Why are we here?’ And you’re just stuck there as a kid because your parents work there or something.” Anderegg has been in California now for 20 years and, until now, he’s never looked back. “California was the place to be,” he said. “Kind of like in The Beverly Hillbillies, you know?”