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Unburied Treasure: Phoenix Convention Center's Public Art Projects

Detail from wall mural by Isaiah Zagar
Kathleen Vanesian

Unless you're a comic fanatic, a Mary Kay representative, or a hardcore Trekkie, chances are you haven't haunted the halls of a convention center in a while. But don't let that stop you from exploring the new public art projects installed earlier this year at downtown Phoenix's impressively expanded Convention Center. What you'll find there in the Convention Center's North Building are some of our fair city's best-kept secrets — untouted art treasures you'll definitely want to add to your city tour for jaded visiting friends and bored out-of-town relatives.

If you don't believe me — and you might not, considering the bad press the pricey behemoth has received — check out a slideshow of the work. What follows here are highlights of what I saw on a recent visit.

You'll want to start your tour in the center's West Building. Coming through its sleek glass doors fronting Second Street near its intersection with Monroe, you can't miss internationally respected sculptor Louise Bourgeois' Art is a Guaranty of Sanity, a monolithic mirror sculpture at the center of the grand atrium entrance. Standing 40 feet tall, the reflective face of Bourgeois' Brobdingnagian table mirror is highly polished steel cut into shapes inspired by a drawing of a spider web, while its back is a series of burnished, wave-like ridges. Red LED lights embedded in the mirror's frame spell out the sentiment that "art is a guaranty of sanity," which is reflected onto the mirror's gently undulating surface.

If that statement has any legitimacy, you'll be awash in mental health after you walk across Third Street to enter the Convention Center's new North Building, where you'll find the most recent public art pieces commissioned by the city. Practically the first thing you run into on your left is Arizona Beach, a whimsical bare stoneware ceramic sculptural installation mounted on and into raked sand more appropriate to a Zen Buddhist garden in Kyoto than the Sonoran desert. This fanciful mise en scène, the creation of Tucson artist Hirotsune Tashima, features a diver with swim fins buried head first in sand, together with the torso of a bikini-clad woman, a half-submerged guy in an inner tube, mama and baby javelinas, and two full-scale saguaros encrusted with plates of labeled dishes you might find in any upscale food court (which, by the way, is right in front of you). After you've finished chuckling, make a hard right down a hallway lined with a number of large-scale educational wall and monitor displays dealing with local history, which are pretty engaging in and of themselves. At the end, check out A Moment at the Narrows by Tempe's Troy Moody, a series of terrazzo floor murals. Moody's multi-hued swaths of stylized rock formations and sky were informed by the artist's experience of Sedona's Oak Creek Canyon.

Make a left at the end of the hall and you'll find it impossible to ignore two gargantuan, albeit goofy, idols standing guard at either side of another set of entry doors. Those vaguely pre-Columbian sentinels (early Post-classic period from Tula, if you want to get technical), entitled Southern Exposure, are the handiwork of bi-national artist-brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre. Jokingly referred to by the bros as "Toltec transformers," they're cobbled from a series of metal-and-glass boxes, with faces, arms and feet made of less-than-archival, bright orange and green cast resin. The boxes are chock-full of kooky glass elements plucked from Mexican and Southwestern art and culture, including ears of corn, grape clusters, bananas, chiles, folk saint San Simon, "laughing Veracruz" pre-Col heads, and hundreds of other objects individually handmade, blown, and cast by the artists.

You'll have to force yourself to stop examining them so you can walk out a nearby exit to experience New York-based sculptor Tom Otterness' Social Invertebrates, three polished bronze desert-dwelling insects executed in Otterness' signature cartoony style, with small men swarming over them. A mega-sized, shoe-wearing millipede (kissing cousin to the centipede), with two tiny men unloading coins from its rear end, vies for attention with an equally enormous scorpion in a top hat that's crawling with little guys engaged in all sorts of antics and a walking stick insect sporting high heels.

The outside of the North Building is also home to several must-sees. At the northwest corner of the building, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, known for single-handedly covering the sides of buildings along Philly's historic South Street, has created The Earth Dreaming, several sprawling wall murals made from, among other elements, broken tile, mirror shards, cast ceramic, and pieces of old china. And if you cross Monroe and turn east, find the bronze statue of Pope John Paul II, who spreads his arms wide toward Halo, an enormous metal crown of intertwined agave leaves that reminds me of humans holding hands, which is suspended from the north entrance. The massive royal headgear was created by former Phoenix artist Kim Cridler collaborating with Wisconsin-based William Bennie, a trained industrial designer, and is truly fit for a Pope.

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