Do Pho Is Go

The downtown art scene launches itself in fits and starts on First Fridays

On the first Friday night of every month, the art galleries in downtown Phoenix, big and small, as well as many artists' studios and temporary art spaces, open their doors to the now thousands of people who come through on self-guided tours. Since the mid-'90s, nonprofit volunteer organization Artlink has been facilitating this event, providing maps and information as well as overseeing shuttles that link the spaces. In the last few years, the number of stops on the Artlink tour has grown to the point that two different shuttle routes, one heading west from Central, the other heading east, are required to reach all 40 stops.

The artwork on First Fridays is, in a word, uneven, but if you visit the consistently fine galleries here -- Studio LoDo, for example, and New Urban Art -- to the exclusion of the other, less-polished spaces, you'll miss out on the things that make the downtown Phoenix arts community special -- the pervasive, dogged belief that making art matters, and the happy surprises. Some of the most powerful painting I saw during this past First Friday was on the walls at Art Awakenings, which has as its mission "to foster recovery from serious mental illness through avocation and vocation in the arts." When I read the labels identifying the canvases that had stopped me in my tracks, I realized I was looking at the work of Jacob Martinez, the troubled artist/arsonist this paper recently featured on its cover.

The first stop on both shuttle routes is the Burton-Barr library on Central. (Parking spaces there are plentiful, so it's a good place to leave your car if you're going to ride the bus.) The gallery in the library is small, but shows there are thoughtfully curated and installed; on display through the middle of this month are pieces by Tamara Frey, a local artist working on her MFA in sculpture at Cornell. Her work -- leaves of wood or cardboard intersecting to form objects reminiscent of badminton birdies, propellers, windmills -- is kinetic; even when it's not in motion, it looks like it's designed to be. The central installation, called Whisper, features dozens of Frey's spinning tops on vertical strings; when you blow on them, they spin quickly with a whispered thwick-thwick-thwick through the air, like parts of a whimsical air-powered machine.

The buss stops here: Carrie Bloomston's Untitled (Kissing Drawing) is displayed at eye lounge this month.
Carrie Bloomston
The buss stops here: Carrie Bloomston's Untitled (Kissing Drawing) is displayed at eye lounge this month.

Details

Call Artlink at 602-256-7539 or Scott Sanders at the Paper Heart Gallery, 602-262-2020, or visit Artlink's Web site at www.artlinkphoenix.com.

I've heard stories of people waiting almost an hour for a shuttle, but I had no such trouble. My bus had none of the "performers and entertainers" that the Artlink First Friday brochure promised, but maybe that's because it was packed with people, from older white women in brocade blazers to a striking teenager with ebony skin and multiple facial piercings, whom I later identified as Lorraine Hickman, the subject of two arresting self portraits at the Metro Arts High School show called "Subject Yourself."

I got off the shuttle at Artfit, in the MonOrchid building on Roosevelt Avenue, where, as usual, clusters of people milled around out front. As it turns out, this First Friday was Artfit's last; it'll move out when its lease is up at the end of the month. According to building owner Wayne Rainey, the space it currently occupies will continue to host art shows and performances.

Fiber artist Virginia Sardi's Ultimate Indulge, an installation featuring sugar- and wax-encrusted stuffed animals, had to be taken down early, following complaints from other MonOrchid tenants about the overpoweringly sweet smell. What remains is a collection of dozens of small sock-like bundles that have been dipped in something that looks like dark wax. Pete Deise's thicket of tall, elongated metal sculptures -- part insect, part fern in appearance -- occupied one whole "room" unto themselves, where they dwarfed the people in the space. They made an unusual and surreal setting for all the human bodies standing around and, in that respect, they functioned as an installation; I suspect they have greater power in numbers than individually.

At Holga's, a building on North Third Street that comprises a gallery space and apartments for artists, there was a larger, younger, rowdier crowd. Piercings and tattoos were the rule rather than the exception. A woman set up on a temporary stage area outside the building played keyboards while children and grown-ups made chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Holga's features young and emerging artists, which is admirable, but on this particular Friday, the most interesting thing in the crowded exhibition space was the abundance of skinny young men in fur-trimmed ladies' coats.

"I redid my room again," said one of them to another as they passed, his voice monotone. Nearby, a punkish boy said to a punkish girl, "I like to mix together animals that don't go together." Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, "Me, too!"

At Modified on Roosevelt, Sophia Reilly's haunting little monotypes of fence posts in a barren landscape were selling like hot cakes. (It is the holiday season, which is why so many of these galleries are featuring smaller, less expensive "stocking stuffers" this month.) Works by Philadelphia painter Roy Miranda hung in the front room; several of his smaller paintings -- realistic yet strangely distorted portraits -- managed to assert themselves in spite of the sea of people who'd come to hear the band that would play later.

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