Southwest Art

UNAPOLOGETICALLY FREE

THE VISIT LASTED only a couple of hours. But during the brief time that Allison Leigh Smith stood transfixed in front of traditional Japanese samurai clothing and armor at the Phoenix Art Museum a few years ago, everything she thought was possible about her art changed irreversibly. Before that day, the beautifully detailed animals that inhabited her paintings were set against vague, ambiguous backgrounds—not in their natural habitats but not yet free from a limited, logical conception of where they might be instead.

Now, before her in the museum, was example after example of astonishing combinations of patterns, colors, symbols, and materials that made no outwardly logical sense at all. But it worked. There were bronze helmets in the shape of an eggplant or elk antlers, elegantly embroidered images of cherry blossoms and tigers, and other wildly incongruent elements intricately sewn, sculpted, etched, and braided into layers of protective garments. Each was unique, representing that

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