Two Galleries Give Death A Whirl.

By Margaret Regan

IN THE SENTIMENTAL Victorian days, people marked their loved ones' passage to death
in elaborate ways. They put on black mourning dress, wore rings entwined with locks of the
dead one's hair, and grieved at graves that, at least among the wealthy, were ornamented with
weeping angels carved in stone.

Sometimes the bereft family commissioned artworks called memento mori (memories of death),
usually black and white drawings inscribed with verse. Some even had photographs taken of
dead children dressed in their Sunday best.

Such goings-on strike us an unseemly, if not morbid, in an age when the messy details of death
are left to professional undertakers and outpourings of grief are more politely confined to the
therapist's office. Yet two downtown galleries, Dinnerware and Central Arts, right now are
staging shows about death. Each space is filled with contemporary memento mori: photographs
and sculptures and mixed-media pieces that sometimes rage against the dying of the light,
sometimes celebrate the life that once was.

The Central Arts show, Death: A Round Trip Ticket, is the more gentle of the two, exploring
the natural cycle that takes us ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the Dinnerware exhibit is a raw
journey into grief and loss. The entire show focuses on a single death, that of Diane Marie
Ferris, a Tucson ceramist who died last summer of cancer. Her husband, Gary Benna, a
ceramist who is president of Dinnerware, has filled the floor space with nine sculptures
fashioned out of equal parts stoneware and grief. Along the walls are pale photographic portraits
of Ferris, made by Tucson photographer Ann Simmons-Myers in the months before Ferris'
death at the sick woman's own request. Half-buried already in sand and stones, the dying Ferris
gazes forthrightly out from the delicate salt-print pictures, a messenger from the realm of death.

Knowing what inspired Benna's art, it's virtually impossible to assess it solely in aesthetic
terms. How can we not think of the agony of the survivor when we look at "Embracing Love's
Gift"? In this pedestal piece, above a small, lifeless female form, a man is having his entrails
ripped out by a bird. Then there's the untitled porcelain wall in which the male figure desperately
grabs at the foot of a winged woman who's impatient to fly away.

Still and all, Benna has paradoxically brought an almost
classical discipline to this emotionally gripping series.
Drawing on different art historical styles, his works call up
both classical heroism and medieval terrors. "Graces of the
Inner Gate" suggests both. It's a large stoneware triptych,
with doors that open and close on golden hinges. Outside,
death is orderly and serene. Classical female figures are
tucked into niches, and a god on a throne reaches out kindly
to a woman crawling toward him. Inside, though, all is
torment. Souls straight out of Hieronymus Bosch tumble
down rocky cliffs to their doom.

Most poignant of all are Benna's sculptured dancers. In
"Dance No. 3," a woman still healthy and vigorous dances
happily in the arms of a man. But in "Dance No. 1," her
body is compromised; her dancing partner holds her lightly
so as not to damage her further. The partner may be her
loving husband, or it may be Death itself, eager, just like the
skeletons in the painted medieval "dances of death," to take
her as his own.