Art for Pete's Sake

The downtown arts scene is thriving. And Peter Petrisko is stifling a yawn.

Peter Petrisko is back from the dead. Literally. After a near-death experience a decade ago, the onetime wunderkind of Phoenix's underground arts scene vanished without a trace. Five years before, Petrisko had made a name for himself by ravaging a yucca plant on East Van Buren on which the Virgin of Guadalupe had appeared -- an act designed to bring performance art to downtown Phoenix.

He's recently resurfaced with a popular Internet Web log (or "blog") called The World According to Pete, a series of coffee-house readings, and (in partnership with artist Jake Martinez) a new art space called Crisis Gallery, which opens this week. But Peter pines for the good old days, when downtown art was a grungy, punk-influenced scene peopled with outsiders with an ax to grind, and not the clean, well-lighted meat market he's afraid it's become.

New Times: So, you're back. Tell me about The World According to Pete.

He's baaaack: Peter Petrisko has returned to the Valley art scene.
Emily Piraino
He's baaaack: Peter Petrisko has returned to the Valley art scene.

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Peter Petrisko: I started it mostly out of boredom. I needed someplace to write things down. I get an idea, and all these words will form around it, and I have to get the words out. I don't want my head to explode. I figured a blog would be a good way to prevent that.

NT: What's the whole blogging thing about? Are bloggers just people who are too cool to be published?

Petrisko: Bloggers are mostly people with a lot of time on their hands. Blogging started out as mostly personal journals posted as Web sites, but now there are a lot of political blogs, by people who want to stick it to the system. Some bloggers are wanna-be writers who are working up to being published, and a couple of them have even gotten book deals.

NT: I read on your Web log that you wrote a porn story from the perspective of a woman.

Petrisko: Yes. It's called "My Name Is Pete and I'm a Proud Slut." I wrote it to blow off steam, and I had it published at erotica.com, and I got about 50 responses. The guys who wrote were pretty crude and obnoxious. It was like, "Thanks, man, for telling me how many times you whacked off to this story, and how hard you got." The women were much cooler. They wrote, like, "I read your story and you can guess where my hand was." It gave me a new perspective on where women are coming from and what they have to deal with every day. To your women readers, I want to say, on behalf of men, I'm so very sorry. Men are crude and awful, and thank you for putting up with us and sometimes having sex with us.

NT: What happened to you? You sort of vanished from the arts scene.

Petrisko: I died. I got this crazy idea in my head to try heroin, and I ended up overdosing. I was literally dead for three or four minutes. I came to and I was no longer in my body. I was in this dark place that was surrounded by love and compassion. I was in the presence of God. So I said to God, "Hey, G. What up, dog?" And he looked upon me, and the Lord said unto me, "Hey, pal. Don't get too close." Then he told me that our purpose here on Earth is to learn to love and to discover the love of learning, whether that be book learning, street smarts, whatever. And then it was my time to come back.

NT: What? What are you talking about?

Petrisko: I know it sounds weird, but it happened.

NT: I wanted to talk about the downtown arts scene.

Petrisko: I know.

NT: Uh, where were you when you died?

Petrisko: When I OD'd, I was with friends at someone's house. When I woke up, I was outside. I found out later that one of them heard my death rattle, realized something was wrong, and tried to do CPR on me. They couldn't bring me back, so they dragged me through the window because, you know, no one wants a dead body in their house, right? They dumped me in the neighbor's yard and called 911.

NT: These were your friends?

Petrisko: I tell you, when you use drugs, you get thrown out like the garbage.

NT: Clearly. So what does God look like?

Petrisko: He's just a presence. He just is. And after I saw him, it took me about seven years to assimilate my near-death experience. During that period, I did a lot of self-medicating. But then I got into a program -- I can't mention which one -- and I got clean. But I came back to life with new abilities. I can see dead people now. I can't control it. Every once in a while, a dead person just comes walking through the door. I've had out-of-body experiences. I can see auras.

NT: Okay. What color is my aura?

Petrisko: Yellow. With a tinge of pink.

NT: Pink. Well, there's a surprise. So, let's talk about the downtown arts scene. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you ran a gallery/coffee shop called Metropophobobia with the two other Peters.

Petrisko: Peter Ragan and Pete Fischer.

NT: And you had Gallery X, which was really a big deal back then. Everyone went there to watch performance art and see work by emerging artists. It was all kind of grungy, and we all felt we were onto something hip and undiscovered. Now it seems like this same scene is finally thriving, but it isn't as edgy or provocative. Is it just because I'm old and boring now?

Petrisko: The main difference is that back then, the art spaces were mostly run by and for artists; it was more about art for art's sake. That there was an audience that enjoyed the art was happenstance. Today, downtown art seems more like big business. There's a lot of galleries down here now that are clean, well-lit places that are trying to draw an audience in, an audience who will buy paintings. So they feel like the galleries in Scottsdale. The Phoenix arts scene needs to either stake out its own identity, or it's just going to be Scottsdale Lite.

NT: How will that happen?

Petrisko: It's up to the gallery owners. They have to be willing to take chances, to do something a little different. It won't pay off immediately, but in the long run it'll result in an arts scene that has an exciting identity, one that draws like-minded young artists. Right now, it all feels a little too clean to attract the sort of edgy artists who made the scene thrive in the past.

NT: Because the downtown arts scene has always been the antithesis of that couch-art-and-wine-in-plastic-glasses social thing.

Petrisko: Well, I don't know about now. But 10 years ago there was more of a hint of danger to the work. And art should be a little bit dangerous, both to the artists and the audience.

NT: Well, I remember being frightened back then, when the galleries were on Wino Row, and we'd be stepping over homeless people on the way in.

Petrisko: I think it's not so much the location of the galleries as the attitudes of some of the people who are running them. I don't know if it's necessarily better to have well-funded or well-organized galleries, but it would be nice if more people were taking more chances with the art they're showing. Because it's art, for God's sake.

NT: So you think there's less interest in the art than in the scene.

Petrisko: Hey, if I want to go to a meat market, I'll go to a bar. But I want to go to an art market; I want to see good art. And there are some galleries showing good art. One of the big differences between the scene now and, as the kids say, back in the day, is the amount of audience participation. Back then, a larger number of people who came to events would eventually start showing art or performing themselves. These days, art is much more the spectator sport. If the arts in downtown Phoenix is going to thrive, this has to change.

NT: Well, it's true that none of these cool gallery owners are ravaging the Mother of God. I remember when you raped the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Petrisko: Me and the Virgin go way back. That kind of thing -- doing something radical and calling it art -- helped make the arts scene possible. When you pull something like that, you become infamous, and if you can parlay that into a certain degree of fame, that's even better. When I opened Gallery X, the hook was "that guy who cut down the yucca plant that looked like the Virgin is opening a gallery." One thing fed the other. Today it's more about someone with a day job who thinks it would be cool to have a little art gallery on Roosevelt or whatever. Where's their interest in art?

NT: But now the downtown arts scene has its very own arts magazines.

Petrisko: I can't read them. They're very slick, and I get the feeling that the editors are asking the writers to write boring. And some of them are a little too self-promotional. Shade magazine is a little too MonOrchid-centric as far as what it covers. The local arts scene isn't just about hanging paintings and writing an article about it. Artists and arts writers need to get outside the gallery more, see what's going on in the world outside, and then paint it, write about it, do a performance piece about it.

NT: You just want things to be the same as they were 15 years ago.

Petrisko: No. I want the arts scene to evolve. But I want it to happen with an eye toward the history of the movement. I run into young kids who say, "I was here when the downtown arts scene was huge!" And they'll talk about some gallery that came and went three years ago. When it really started to happen, the downtown arts scene was really something that came out of the punk scene of the early '80s. Back then, I met people -- artists, filmmakers, musicians -- who moved to Phoenix because they heard that the arts scene was really taking off. That's not happening today. Everything's a little too clean and safe down here. And art should be a bit of an adventure.

E-mail robrt.pela@newtimes.com.

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