It's never been easy to explain the weakness of Phoenix's downtown art scene. Art martyrs like to pin its frailty on the city's antipathy toward culture. They say Phoenix has pumped municipal bond dollars by the millions into a few big museums while happily bulldozing smaller downtown galleries and art spaces to make way for stadiums, arenas and beer halls.
The more painful fact is that even when downtown art venues have managed to keep their lights on, they've rarely presented talent worth seeing. Good artists usually don't stay. The few who do frequently turn to selling their work out of their studios and living rooms, there being little point to showing in galleries that don't attract serious collectors.
However, in the past few years some new sparks have encouraged the notion that downtown Phoenix might one day become hospitable to the kind of art scene found in every other major American city -- a scene packed with galleries, studios and collectors.
A few studios doubling as galleries have opened along Grand Avenue, just west of downtown. The Barlow & Straker gallery opened in a strip mall on McDowell Road, near 14th Street. And Modified -- a performance and gallery satellite of Stinkweeds, the Tempe outlet for alternative music -- opened in an old building on Roosevelt Avenue, at Fourth Street.
In its year-and-a-half existence, Modified has built a reputation as a leading downtown source of offbeat music, poetry and visual art. It's tempting to call its offerings countercultural, but its visual arts tend more toward stylistic throwbacks.
In the current show, the historical precedents are readily visible in Chad Godt's figurative works, Max Hammond's colorful small abstractions and Aurora Hughes-Villa's installations, made of silk-screened ceramics and electronic sound bites (not working the night I was there).
Hughes-Villa's work carries the worn conceptualism that has been a trademark of her alma mater, the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, for more than a generation. It comes with earnest -- and pointless -- blah blah on the wall about "building upon the societal pressures of aging and the complexities of ageism . . ."
Hammond's and Godt's works come with the imprint of abstract and expressionistic stylizations that dominate the painting studios at ASU, where both artists studied.
Like most of the other works featured at Modified, this is young art by artists trying to leap from college and other youthful circumstances into exhibition careers.
The gallery's bebop atmosphere isn't always kind to works. In the current show, Hammond's oil paintings lose some of their color to the cold splash of the gallery's dim overhead canister lights. And their subtle colorations wind up competing on one wall with the red cross hatch of exposed brick.
But that's to be expected in a strictly after-hours space where art, music and other performances are being trained to co-exist.
The brains behind the art end of the operation is Kimber Lanning.
She has always hung art on the walls of Stinkweeds, which she founded.
The event that persuaded her to expand that habit into a formal gallery was the closing of downtown's Metropophobobia in 1998. The "Bobe," as people sometimes called it, was a curiosity shop for the art crowd. Part gallery, part performance venue, it sold books, art and assorted oddities that no other gallery or store would carry. The operation was held together by Peter Regan, a part-time carpenter who lived in the back of the store.
"I think he was really tired of doing it for too many years with little or no appreciation," says Lanning.
She offered to help Regan. But he wanted out. So in January 1999, she rented the space Regan vacated.
The building had numerous lives before Regan and Lanning. It was home to Stuff Antiques, a dark space packed floor to ceiling with what the name suggests.
"When we came in here," Lanning recalls, "it still had about 4,000 hooks in the ceiling that hung a ton of old shag lamps."
Lanning says she wanted Modified to be a different kind of hanging place, where "punk rockers could go to a poetry reading and poets could go and listen to experimental noise."
"Part of Phoenix's problem is that it's so fragmented. People stay in their own areas and there's no crossover. I'm trying to cross those barriers and get everyone to sort of play well with one another."
Lanning's is a social worker's vision of culture. She opened Stinkweeds 13 years ago, when she was just 19, to provide a commercial home for independent and alternative music that had lost its air time to corporate pop. Part of Modified's goal, she says, is to give talented local artists a reason to stay downtown.
"So many of them move away," she says. "It really is discouraging to think of the people who've moved away to do amazing things in some other city."
She theorizes that this exodus of talent occurs because "we don't have the older community here to show the younger artists how it's done. So the median age of what's happening here is much younger than in Boston, D.C. or older cities. Artists there have all their role models."
Most of the dozen or so artists who have exhibited at Modified have come via word of mouth. Lanning doesn't like to feature their work more than once a year. And she avoids showing art that has appeared elsewhere.
Part of Modified's cultural success stems from Lanning's willingness to fish for talent outside the limited pond of artists being constantly exhibited downtown. She keeps an eye on artists working in the graduate art programs at ASU. She reviews portfolios twice a week. And she pays attention to the artists -- Hughes-Villa is one -- who receive annual grants from the Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum.
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Nevertheless, Lanning concedes that it's still a chore to lure collectors downtown. And as a commercial venture, the gallery portion of Modified is struggling: "Basically, the bands that play here pay for the art."
Yet on some Friday nights, the art crowd outnumbers the harmless drunks and homeless who wander the streets outside, and Modified has a problem that Lanning says she never anticipated.
"I look around this place," she says, "and it's wall to wall. I'm the optimist. I'm the one over the past 13 years who's said, "This is the year. This is really it.' But I never thought the problem would be you can't view the art because you can't back up enough to see it."
The exhibition runs through Monday, July 3, at Modified, 407 East Roosevelt. Gallery hours: 7 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday through Saturday. Information: 602-252-7664.