Misery loves company. I guess that's why people won't stop talking about the fiery furnace that is a Phoenix summer. Arizonans have a complex when it comes to the heat, which isn't entirely unwarranted because it does, in fact, get heinously hot here. The unbearableness of it becomes a rallying cry behind which we all gather. But over time, that cry of indignity easily can morph into a string of excuses: Heat is the reason people can't keep up their normal exercise routines or heat is the reason your friends just want to stay in on the weekends.
Evidently, heat also can be an excuse for lazy art shows.
This summer, I found six local art exhibitions that made reference, in one way or another, to the climbing temperatures: "Thermal Phx" at MonOrchid, "Heat" at Practical Art, "Dry" at R. Pela Contemporary Art, "H2O" at The Lodge, "Dog Days of Summer" at Night Gallery, and "Indian Summer" at Palabra's Pop-Up at the Biltmore.
Both "Thermal Phx" and "Dog Days of Summer" will be on view through August 31 at MonOrchid and the Night Gallery, respectively. R. Pela Contemporary Art Gallery is currently on summer hiatus, but "Dry" can be viewed through mid-August by special appointment.
Before I even saw any of the artwork, the trend annoyed me in principle. People know it's hot; we're bombarded with the harsh reality of it every time we step outside. Shows that reference any of the four seasons are one thing (lazy), but shows that force viewers to confront an Arizona summer are another (offensive). With the sheer number of galleries hopping on the temperature exhibition bandwagon this year, I couldn't help feeling that the theme was a cop-out.
And for most of the shows, it was.
Both MonOrchid and Practical Art used their annual summer shows to feature emerging artists, giving wall space to a variety of work that may not normally be seen on the usual downtown art circuit. This might appear to be a noble cause, but it's not one I find particularly beneficial to the Phoenix art scene. If the work isn't good enough to be in a gallery, then it shouldn't be in a gallery. "Thermal Phx" and "Heat" were the worst exhibitions out of the bunch, with really mediocre artwork. The theme played out in slightly different ways, with "Heat" sticking to work centered on the exhibition's name and "Thermal Phx" structured as an art competition, with new topics presented to the advancing artists each month.
Like "Thermal Phx," "Dog Days of Summer" and "Indian Summer" were exhibitions that referenced the heat in name alone. "Dog Days of Summer" featured dog paintings by Ally Glowacki, who recently got her MFA at ASU, and "Indian Summer" featured mixed-media works by Mykil Zep. Glowacki's show was surprisingly beautiful, showcasing the artist's sensitivity. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Zep, whose art included highly problematic appropriated American Indian imagery that I found upsetting.
Much to my surprise, it was two of the overtly themed shows that won me over.
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"H2O" stood out as the best-conceived of the bunch. Organized by Steve Weiss and Rafael Navarro, the exhibition was intended to provide a much-needed reprieve from the summer heat by showing work that was all about water. The pieces came from 16 local artists; there was a lovely mix of up-and-comers Yai Cecream, Mikey Jackson, and Ashley Macias and veterans Colin Chillag, Bill Dambrova, and Abbey Messmer. It's kind of silly, but I love the idea of using art viewing as a way to cool down. There may not have been an actual shift in body temperature, but I truly did feel refreshed looking at each artist's take on the the theme.
"Dry" took the more direct thematic route, the exact one I had predicted I would hate, and showed work about the high temperatures in the desert. History shows that curator Robrt Pela (also a New Times contributor) knows his way around a theme without succumbing to cliché, and that saved this show in the end. I ended up liking a lot of the work: Lisa Albinger's Desert Traveler and Ed Kennefick's Prickly Pear Study and Collective Memory: Elephant Foot Rock were my favorites.
But Pela took this exhibition to a whole new level with an accompanying spoken word event, featuring an impressive roster of local storytelling talent. Maybe it's not a fair comparison, but the storytelling combined with the artwork shot this exhibition lightyears ahead of all the rest in my book.
To be clear, I still basically think of the heat theme as too on-the-nose when it comes to Phoenix summer art exhibitions. Even the shows I liked made me want to roll my eyes at times. But when it comes down to it, themed exhibitions are only successful when the art can hold its own outside of the context of the show. Using a theme to cover up poor work doesn't do much good. Without a certain level of a quality, a gimmick is just a gimmick.