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10 Best Art Exhibits We Saw in Metro Phoenix in 2014

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The year's best exhibitions included a fabulous diversity of artwork, from ceramics to mail art, shown in a nifty assorted of places. Think museums, library, galleries, shipping containers, pop-up spaces, and re-purposed spaces that once housed ice blocks and forensic evidence. Several of the exhibits we loved best featured works created by local artists. Here's our ode to the top ten.

See also: Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West to Open in January 2015

"Art-O-Sphere" Icehouse December 4 through December 5

We've seen plenty of intriguing art out of ASU art students this year, exhibited from Alwun House to Night Gallery. But our favorite by far was this exhibition of works by ASU School of Art sculpture students, who blew what's left of the roof off the Icehouse with a perfect blend of visual and performance art that makes us wonder why the two art forms don't play nicely together more often. The gritty Icehouse habitat was a perfect setting for these works of metal, stone, neon, and more -- plus drumming, fire dancers and other entertainment. Art installations inside upper level rooms that once stored giant blocks of ice rewarded those whose curiosity lured them up the stairs. Seating areas, and tabletops sporting piles of classic junk foods, gave art lovers places to gather, converse, and load up on goodies they rarely indulge in at home. We love the fact that exploring art can be a supremely social enterprise, and figure nearly everything goes better with Twinkies.

"Cultural Savage: The Art & Collections of Joe Willie Smith" The Gallery @ Scottsdale Civic Center Library September 2 through November 20

We've picked two shows with a collecting theme, reflecting contemporary interest in what people hunt and gather, and why. Maybe someday the reality TV show executives who profile all manner of pickers and hoarders will figure out that following artists in hot pursuit of found objects is more interesting by far. The curator nailed it with this presentation of eclectic fare collected or created by Smith, which included a fun assortment of hips chairs (some suspended from the ceiling) and large-scale sculpture made with discarded doors from the steel cab of a giant crane. We love poking around exhibits that feel like a box of Forrest Gump's chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get.

"Focus Latin America: Art is Our Last Hope" Phoenix Art Museum October 1 through November 23 Shade Gallery at MonOrchid December 5 through January 12, 2015

A couple of Phoenix Art Museum exhibits were contenders for this year's favorites list -- including "Lifelike" and "Vanitas." But "Focus Latin America," which features mail art submitted by local and international citizens, gets the shout-out for several reasons. It reminded us that both digital culture and snail mail have made important contributions to the art world, engaged a diverse assortment of artists and others in the act of making art, and bridged the museum/gallery gap by moving to MonOrchid's Shade Gallery after its initial Phoenix Art Museum run. We love exhibits that democratize art-making so more folks get the chance to create work and show it.

"Fold, Paper, Scissors" Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum May 2 through August 10

We loved seeing all the local artists represented in "35th Annual Contemporary Crafts" and other Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum exhibits this year. Still, we were most wowed with works created by 14 artists featured in "Fold, Paper, Scissors," who used simple tools children favor during early art-making to create elegant, elaborate works that exude the playful innocence of childhood while referencing the rich history of manipulating paper across cultures and time periods. Charles Clary works reminded us of days spent with Sculpey Clay and Spirograph. Jaq Belcher's Suchness, which includes a suspended piece made with 8,600 cuts and floor piece made with 35,555 hand-cut seeds, reminded us of works by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. We love exhibits that transform the way we think about everyday objects and experiences.

"Fortoul Brothers: Solo Exhibition" 40 Owls Pop-up Gallery November 14 through December 12

The Fourtoul Brothers wowed us with their marriage of art-making and merchandising, demonstrating that creativity and commerce can peacefully co-exist. By finding a space that perfectly embodied their aesthetic, and transforming it into a short-term gallery housing an eclectic assortment of works, they've suggested a possible path for local artists and collectives eager to show their own works. Colored piles of sand-like material that punctuated the concrete floors reflected the artists' deep respect for the earth while inspiring gallery-goers to think about ways they move through space. Several of their works put a fresh twist on traditional themes in Western art, from cowboy boots to desert wildlife. We love exhibits that reflect contemporary culture while channeling the cultures of other times and places.

"Hello Midtown!" Lisa Sette Gallery June 14-September 27

Sette's move from Scottsdale to midtown Phoenix was marked by two exceptional exhibits -- her final Scottsdale show titled "Domesticated" featuring works by Carrie Marill that left us feeling we'd mistakenly taken the city's quaint trolley all the way to Manhattan, and the inaugural exhibition at her new Phoenix space. "Hello Midtown!" included diverse works by 19 artists, including Rachel Bess, Angela Ellsworth, and Mayme Kratz. Taken together, these sophisticated artworks and the pristine white walls that enveloped them created a space filled with reverence. We dug the counterbalance "Hello Midtown!" provided to other metro Phoenix shows with a more rough-hewn vibe. We love exhibits that lure art lovers from other parts to the burgeoning midtown and downtown art scenes.

"Linear Thinking" Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art May 24 through August 24

If museum exhibits were movies, "Linear Thinking" would be the surprise low-budget hit that beat out the heavily marketed, big-budget "Covert Operations," the museum's current exhibit filled with works by international artists exploring themes prevalent in the post 9-11 age. Using works culled entirely from its own collection, SMoCA's "Linear Thinking" explored the basic elements of art that have likely informed human existence since its inception. Deceptively simple compared to its current counterpart, "Linear Thinking" proved that less can be more. We loved starting our stroll through the gallery space with works by local artist Bill Kornegay and ending with work by Alexander Calder. Deb Sokolow's piece with a graphic novel vibe, which ran nearly the length of an entire wall, was a particularly intriguing work -- clearly capable of eliciting an infinite number of interpretations rooted in the past experiences of its viewers. We love exhibits that put creative spins on local collections rather than hawking pre-packaged roadshows.

"Moctezuma's Revenge" ASU Art Gallery January 25 through April 26

The massive hand-carved stone cowboy boots created by Eduardo Sarabia still stand like sentinels outside an ASU Art Museum entrance. Like other Sarabia works featured in "Moctezuma's Revenge," they conjure reflections on contemporary "narco culture." Several works featured in the solo exhibition called on traditional folk art forms to narrate the complexities of underground drug cultures infused with violence and shiny objects paid for with obscene amounts of ill-gotten gain. We were especially wowed by a monumental piece called The Gift, comprised of industrial shelving loaded with tidy rows of shipping boxes and ceramics harkening contraband smuggled in both directions across the U.S./Mexico border, which bore an eerie resemblance to merchandising displays at big box stores renowned for paying low wages. We love exhibits that explore social justice by being intellectually provocative instead of preachy or pedantic.

"The Jungle Box" Halt Gallery at 408 E. Roosevelt Street October 17 through November 9

We're thrilled that First and Third Friday art options include changing exhibits inside shipping containers transformed into small gallery spaces. We've seen some beautiful exhibits inside both the Halt Gallery and Hot Box Gallery located in the Roosevelt A.R.T.S. Market, including "The Jungle Box" featuring works by Sarah Hurwitz set inside a container sporting a blond wood floor and creamy aqua walls. Hurwitz conjured plants from ceiling to floor, mounted artworks featuring jungle fare on each long wall, and installed two sets of binoculars at the entrance -- one pair used by grown-ups and the other by children getting an early jump on being supporters of the metro Phoenix art scene. We love exhibits that engage families and foster future generations of artists and art lovers.

"These Are Some of My Favorite Things" ASU Art Museum Brickyard July 19 through October 11

For his final pre-retirement exhibition, Peter Held curated an exhibit featuring objects held dear by several Arizona art collectors -- including Kathleen Vanesian, who served until recently as the Phoenix New Times art critic. Vanesian's collection of Mexican folk art was exhibited along with collections of military trench art, small white objects, vintage Arizona fare including salt and pepper shakers, childhood and travel memorabilia, folk art and naïve art, and works pulled by Held from the university's ceramics collection. We were most captivated by the 30 + walking sticks collected by Mark Klett, which hung like soldiers in formation along a single wall. With each collection, you intuit something of the owner's personality. We're keen on exhibits that peel back the curtain to reveal the intersections of art with autobiography.

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