Robert Anderson had just finished his first year of art school at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"I had won just about everything I entered in the Midwest," he recalls. "My teachers were entering the same art contests, and I was winning. I expected them to congratulate me, but it got to a point where they wouldn't even speak to me at the openings. My mother gave me $1,000 and said, 'Get out of town while you can.' "So I did."
That was in 1992. Since then, Anderson has gone on to become one of the most talented and prolific "unknown" artists in Phoenix.
His work is seen daily by hundreds of motorists driving by his joie de pop art cityscape covering the north wall of Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre. Last fall, he was chosen by the public art committee of the Scottsdale Cultural Council to produce another mural in collaboration with local teenagers. The work lines the gymnasium at Mountainview Community Center in north Scottsdale.
In addition to these public arts projects, Anderson has, in the three years since his arrival, had 17 exhibitions of his work in the Phoenix area. His show of new paintings is currently on view at Art One gallery in Scottsdale. But none of this would ever have happened if Anderson hadn't discovered the Faux Cafe, a now-closed art space at Central and Madison. "Once my girlfriend and I left Indiana, we just kept on driving," says Anderson, hoisting a Schlitz in his cluttered central Phoenix studio. "We stopped in Denver, didn't like it, and ended up in Phoenix because we ran out of money.
"We were going to leave again, but then I got a studio at the Faux Cafe. I met a bunch of artists and decided to stay." Anderson currently shares his art space with eight other artists he has known since his days at the Faux. The studio is an enormous, decrepit Victorian building they aptly call "The House." Since last November, Anderson and his partners have resurrected it from its former condemned state--"When I first walked in, there were syringes all over the floor"--to a living, breathing art space. A maze of high-ceilinged rooms in a state of stalled decay wanders along to a guest house in the rear.
Anderson's fellow "House" mates lounge in the backyard. His portly hound, Sarah, shuffles through the halls.
"At some level, I work every day," he says. "Painting, framing, sketching. If I'm working on a show, it's six to ten days in a row painting. Shit, I don't have a job. I have to paint. Besides, it's good for me--you're a painter or you are not." This town, he says, took a little getting used to. "Phoenix can be a strange place to be a painter because it's such a sports town," he says. "But I think the community here is getting better now. "Like at the Faux Cafe," he says, laughing. "It was right next to the America West Arena. We would have openings the nights of basketball games and would go out to lure the basketball people into the show. They would never come in. After a while, people actually started to cross the street so they wouldn't have to walk by the gallery. But there seems to be a stronger community now.
"At least here in Phoenix. The Scottsdale people never come out here." The nights of chasing basketball people ended last fall when Anderson took his paintings to Art One in Scottsdale and demanded they be seen. "I was mad," he says emphatically. "I was mad at all of Phoenix. I was looking at some of the crap out there, and I couldn't get any attention. I was selling out of Planet Earth Theatre or Faux Cafe, but it was only going so far.
"So I just walked in with my paintings and put 'em up and said, 'I am sick of being ignored.' I was kind of a jerk about it. But he liked them and kept me on," he says, referring to gallery owner Kraig Foote.
"The thing about Robert is that people really like his paintings," says Foote, who has sold an amazing 80 percent of the work Anderson has submitted. "People generally come in to a gallery and take a quick look at the work, but they really stop and really look at Robert's paintings. He's sort of wild and he's pretty streetwise. And he is a very serious painter." Anderson's current show at Art One, titled "Subservience & Reward," is stunning. Anderson's work might be called postexpressionist surrealism. Lush jewel tones segue into bizarre landscapes that house a mutant zoo of animals, harlequins and human forms that seem to melt into themselves and each other. His dazzling use of light and color, the literal pushing of objects through various layers of the painting, recalls the German expressionist Franz Marc, an acknowledged influence.
Also similar to Marc, who co-founded the Blue Rider movement with Vasili Kandinski in the early 1900s, is Anderson's belief in the use of color as a central element of painting.
"The use of color--that is painting," he says. "These guys that do interesting stuff with burnt sienna, that's fine. But they really haven't challenged themselves that much." Color vibrates in "I Felt the Presence of Eternal Youth in the Garden," depicting a surreal gathering of dogs (Anderson's metaphor for the male) that watch winged fish and human bones lazily circling overhead. An agitated yellow cat (symbolizing the female) hisses in shades of violet, ignoring the spectacle, and a vaguely interested sun gazes from above. But what does it all mean? "Well, you know the saying, 'Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it'? That's it," qualifies Anderson. "The bones are achievements, what you are striving for. Once you catch them all, you're dead." Each work is an allegory told in Anderson's secret iconography. "Big Pigs and Wingless" shows an armless harlequin balanced precariously on a pole fence, while a pig watches him from below. "This is the guy on the tightrope. He's got his arms cut off, nowhere to go," says the artist. "This is about how a peaceful, nonmaterialistic person exists in the world." "Now What the Hell Was That Supposed to Be About" is an apt title for a painting that seems to be about nothing in particular. It shows a faceless man in blue overalls, leaning against a fence along what looks like a country road. With his toe he kicks aside a limp, Daliesque pocket watch while a dull yellow sun lights the landscape flatly from behind. "This is more like a factory worker, or someone who gave up a long time ago," explains Anderson. "Creative people look for fulfillment, but most people look for a paycheck. Always waiting for the paycheck. So I look at him and think, 'Hey, good going! Look what that got you.'" And what will Anderson's art get him? Fulfillment? Wealth? Fame? At least one thing's certain: It got him out of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Loose Ends
Speaking of talented young painters from Indiana, check out Ian Davis' work, also on view at Art One. Davis, a mere 22, is drawing some attention lately with his imaginative, often childlike paintings and mixed-media constructions. His work has energy and bounciness, and it flies out the door, thanks to admirers of his style. He's already attracted collectors in the Phoenix area. Davis started art school in graphic design, but found it "too restrictive."
"It didn't have much to do with my desire to make stuff," he says. "When I got into painting, which was only about a year and a half ago, I knew that was what I really wanted to do."
He uses canvas, wood, stuff he finds in the Dumpster. And his subject matter is personal, though not in an exhibitionistic way. "Everything I paint is about something that is going on with me, but I doubt people would see it," he explains. "Like I've been painting street scenes lately because my brother is traveling now--and I am thinking about that a lot. There is a kite in that one," he says, blushing and pointing to a vivid expressionistic landscape leaned against an old trunk in his Tempe studio, "because I've been, uh, flying a kite sometimes."
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Mention of his works' popularity causes Davis to shake his head and look a bit confused. "It's great to be able to make a living from my painting. It is so lucky. All my teachers tried to tell me it was impossible to make a living off of art. I love this."
Also worth a stop is Italian artist Maurizio Pellegrin's show "I Know Your Words" at Lisa Sette Gallery through April 2. Pellegrin, an obsessive collector of vintage furniture, letters, photographs, architectural fragments and other objects from his travels, creates arrangements that transcend their individual parts.
Like the late American artist Joseph Cornell, Pellegrin has the ability to see the energy inherent in old objects that have been held, used, written, sat upon and needed by some unknown person in an unknown past. He gives some forms a secret quality, as well, by actually "blindfolding" them with thick black cloth.
A warning: My rapt enjoyment of the show was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a large old pot being kicked across the gallery floor by an unsuspecting gallery shuffler. Watch for the art on the floor.