A six-inch seal -- blue, shiny and cartoonish -- is emerging from a miniature plastic toilet. With the pull of a cord, the marooned animal comes to life. A creepy melody starts to play -- the music of some deranged jewelry box -- and the seal's head begins moving back and forth in perfect, mechanical time. It's sort of adorable, but in the most sinister of ways.
"I like art that entertains," says Darren Lewis, the mastermind behind this tiny toilet. "But it should still make you think. You know, not just flat-out humor. It should still have some substance to it."
Sadly, the seal escaping from its otherworldly tank is one of Lewis' older pieces and will not be shown during this Friday's Art Detour exhibition. But Lewis, a member of the Eye Lounge -- Phoenix's newest art space and collective -- has something else in the works: a small toy cheerleader, complete with pompoms, mounted onto a motorized, convulsing pedestal.
"I work with toys a lot," he says casually.
The bouncing cheerleader is part of a larger effort, a collaboration between Lewis and his Eye Lounge cohort, Greg Esser, for the space's official opening during this weekend's Art Detour event. In its entirety, the piece -- titled (actual size) -- is a to-scale, Astroturf replica of the 40-yard line in the erstwhile proposed Cardinals football stadium. Camped on the Eye Lounge's microcosmic football field will be the rusty, disembodied bed of a pickup truck, along with artists posing as pigskin fanatics.
Indeed, it seems ironic that the arts community began to flourish under the prospect -- now safely gone -- of a mammoth football stadium being built downtown.
"I think something's really starting here," says artist and collective member Carolyn Lavender, who will be showing a painting at Friday's opening. "It's not just a trend."
For his part, Lewis attributes Phoenix's latent artistic blooming to the city's relative youth.
"It's almost like we haven't had time enough to get organized," he says. "I think there are finally enough people to get a local scene going, and things are starting to happen."
"The Phoenix arts community has been on a simmer for a long time," adds Thomas Strich, another collective member, who will be showing a 3-D photographic construction for Art Detour. "This is not something that's new; it's been here all along."
"Also," Esser says, "one of the significant differences is that artists are now purchasing property. We actually own this building. So we're not just leasing, we've made a substantial investment."
The Eye Lounge got its start when members of the collective put together a show for last year's Art Detour. Initially, the members were uncertain if they wanted to rent a space or create something more permanent. Eventually, the dilapidated property at 419 East Roosevelt -- so close to the established art and music venue Modified Arts -- caught their attention.
Their prospective property was, essentially, abandoned. Inhabited by transients, devoid of plumbing and covered with graffiti, the building was an eyesore.
"It was completely derelict," says Esser. "It was the perfect opportunity for an art space." They closed on the property this past December.
The house, built in 1922, with the commercial section added in 1949, came complete with rich history. Upon cleaning out the rafters, Esser discovered nearly a dozen photographs scattered among the debris. Predominantly WWII-era, the photos -- including a shot of a uniformed sailor with his father -- provide a glimpse into the home's distinguished past and, along with other historical relics, are displayed in a glass case as a permanent fixture in the art space.
The Eye Lounge's inception was, in part, a response to the lack of opportunities for artists to show their work in Phoenix. One of the few artist-run spaces downtown, the Eye Lounge has no board of directors to whom it must answer. And unlike a gallery, the space's livelihood is not contingent upon selling art. Rather, members of the collective pay out of their own pockets to keep the space operating. It is artistic freedom in its truest sense.
"There are no real constraints for the artists," says Esser, who hails from Denver, where he says artist-run spaces are the backbone of the art community. "We can do complete installations that are not really sellable, or we can do paintings, or a painter that doesn't normally do sculpture can show sculpture. This is a real alternative to a commercial gallery."
And there is another twist to the autonomy of the Eye Lounge: term limits. Membership will be rotating, with artists limited to a three-year stint within the collective. The idea is to encourage evolution. With an ever-changing roster of participants, it is unlikely that art at the Eye Lounge will ever grow stagnant. Additionally, it is the hope of the collective's founders that term limits will foster artistic growth in the community.
"We want our members to get really fired up here -- to have a positive experience -- and take that and use it to start something else," says Esser, who has seen this model work successfully in Denver.
Ultimately, while planting the seeds for future growth, the Eye Lounge wants to lend innovation to the budding Phoenix art community.
"We're hoping a lot of different things will happen in the Eye Lounge," says Lavender. "Performances, poetry readings --"
"Well, not poetry readings," interrupts Esser. "Nothing against poetry, but . . ." He laughs. "There are currently a lot of venues for poetry and we're trying to provide an outlet for things that don't normally happen in the Phoenix community. We're trying to provide new space for new kinds of expression."
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