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Later I asked Lenee Eller, Sky Harbor's curator of art, why these pieces were semihidden. She said, "Every square foot of space here was negotiated over. The airport is here to make money, after all, and those who want art have to compete with advertisers and retail shops." So I guess we're lucky we don't have ads for Pampers in the bathrooms.
"You should know," she added, "that we weren't going to have a changing table in the men's rest room, but one of the women on the planning committee brought it up. I can tell you that some of the men there were surprised at the concept."
Eller considers herself lucky. She presides over the second-largest airport art program in the country--San Francisco's is the first. Sky Harbor is the tenth-busiest airport nationally, with more than a million people a month walking through its spaces (a lot of them repeat visitors, of course). Terminal Four accounts for 60 percent of that volume.
"So I help run one of the biggest `art galleries' in the nation," she said. There's art all over the place here." A changing exhibition, "Contemporary Nature," occupies a half-dozen spots. These are mostly predictable Arizona landscapes by state artists. The Aviation History Room has an interesting photography show documenting the construction of the Terminal, which is formally titled the Barry M. Goldwater Terminal. (I doubt if anyone will call it that. Barry has been honored so much, pretty soon we'll have to name manholes after him.) Craig Smith took photos of the buildings, and Marilyn Szabo took photos of some of the people who built them. Smith's best shots are close-ups of gloves, believe it or not. Worn, patched, torn, they succinctly and graphically depict the incredible labor it takes to lay all that rebar and pour all that concrete.
There's even art in the stairwells. Richard Gubernick's painted aluminum reliefs look like they were made from the pile of pieces left over from a child's construction-paper project. Gubernick takes these pieces, layers them, then rivets them together, finally bolting them to the wall.
Though technically called reliefs, these "Shards," as he calls them, are about as thin as three dimensions can get and not be flimsy. Naturally you want to go up and see if you can peel them off the wall. (They won't budge.)
Several more projects are pending out there, including Mark Klett's huge, hilarious photos of saguaros (there's a small version on one of the walls hyping the art at Terminal Four); a Venetian glass mosaic by Howardena Pindell; a set of squat ceramic totems by Jun Kaneko; and a mixed-media work by Celia Muøn¤oz. Sadly, you won't ever see the piece that would have put Sky Harbor on the map in terms of art sophistication. Luiz Jimenez Jr., a nationally known sculptor from New Mexico, proposed a piece called "The Plumed Serpent," a depiction of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Cast in fiber glass in Jimenez's signature hallucinatory colors, it would have wound for three stories up and around the main escalators.
But the selection panel rejected it last year, on the ridiculous grounds that it would have frightened young children and the elderly. This is why I say Phoenix has not yet quite arrived. The piece would have been dynamite.
Instead we seesaw between great stuff like Gasowski's columns, and the safer, more traditional work like Michael Chiago's painting "Rain Dance and Saguaro Harvest," located at the southeast entry niche on the Ticketing Level. It shows a processional of Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) people in the sky over a desert landscape, where other Native Americans pick saguaro fruit.
It's the kind of thing that will wow Aunt Harriet and Uncle Fred when they come to visit you for the holidays, but for us locals it's something we've already seen too much of.
Still, when you go out to pick up your relatives this year, allot some extra time to study some of the better work at Terminal Four. And don't forget to check out the rest room on the east end of the Baggage Claim Level.
Except for "Contemporary Nature," which closes in January, all pieces are on permanent display at Terminal Four, Sky Harbor International Airport.
With Terminal Four we may not have arrived, but at least we're coming in for a landing. That's the key to the best of the artworks at Terminal Four: They are viewer-