40Owls Pop-up Gallery in Phoenix Presents Fortoul Brothers' Polished Primitivism

Before seeing the solo Fortoul Brothers exhibition inside a pop-up gallery in Phoenix, we never wondered what a cosmic stew of Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Steve Jobs might look like. But now we think we know, thanks to Friday, November 14's opening reception for a seamless mix of art with commerce best described as "polished primitivism."

It's the work of artist Isaac Fortoul and his older brother Gabriel, who wears both manager and curator hats. They describe themselves as "two Columbian brothers born and raised in the outskirts of New York City." Think Union City, New Jersey. For a time they lived in Phoenix, but it's been seven years since they exhibited works here.

In the interim, they've shown work in and beyond NYC, and established a "nomadic gallery" that takes art and merchandise on the road. They dubbed it 40Owls, playing with the phonetic pronunciation of their last name. By removing the space between the digit and the letter "O" that follows, they've mirrored the infinity symbol that's a common thread woven within much of their work.

See also: 10 Must-See Art Exhibitions in Metro Phoenix This Fall

Those entering the Phoenix pop-up -- located in a Central Avenue building sporting red brick walls, concrete floor, and exposed rafters of caramel-colored wood -- discover a delightful mix of elegant and earthy. Fat logs lay in opposite corners of the exhibition space. A clear, multi-tiered chandelier hangs in the center. Green plant material sits atop a metal candle holder on the floor.

Objects d'art include more than drawings, prints, paintings, and sculpture. A silver garment rack, perfectly polished to a high sheen, holds fashionable white T-shirts framing assorted Fortoul designs. Three colorful masks dot the wall near tables topped with stacks of various prints and notecards. Rows of carefully aligned hats, all black and sporting one of several icons prevalent in Fortoul artworks, are displayed together like a treasured collection of artifacts.

There's no boundary signaling a crossing from art exhibit to gift shop. Instead, it all bleeds together beautifully. Works lack signage noting the usual details: title, medium, size, or cost. In this context, it works. Such things are better left to the 40Owls website and social media, which serve as intriguing variations on the brothers' nomadic gallery theme.

The Fortoul brothers are already answering the questions some artists have barely begun to ask. When do the costs of having a single brick and mortar space outweigh the benefits? How can artists who lament their lack of profitability shed their bias against the commercial aspects of their field? What truly captures the imaginations of those consumed by digital culture?

By their own account, they're creating "a cultural entity encompassing art, music, fashion, film and design." Artificial boundaries created by those who segregate various styles of art-making into distinct disciplines have no place in their realm of creative expression.

This particular exhibition includes nine small concrete sculptures placed atop cinder block towers, two carved wooden sculptures, a shelf dotted with small talismans and figurines, and several two-dimensional works hung on panels in four colors: black, white, poppy and celadon blue.

One panel is filled with 100 or so small pieces with a mail art vibe. One replicates Fortoul's artwork included in the "Focus Latin America" exhibition of mail art organized by the Phoenix Art Museum to complement its current "Paolo Bruscky: Art Is Our Last Hope" exhibition.

Piles of sand-like material in several dark hues, ranging from fist-size to bucket-size, punctuate the central gallery space. A portrait that reads "General Pedro Fortoul" hangs on a red brick wall below what looks like a cross between a horseshoe and a mandible minus its teeth. Turns out a historical figure by that name took part in the early 19th century revolution that freed Columbia from Spanish rule.

The interplay between objects is evident here. Cinder blocks stacked at one end of the gallery mirror those holding sculptures across the way. The connected heads of one woman and one man -- his upright and on top, hers upside down and positioned below -- appear in both a sculpture and a work hung nearby.

Duality abounds -- between black and white, rough and smooth, male and female, human and animal. While some works convey the empowerment of women, others reveal the role men sometimes play in silencing them. A man's hand cover a woman's eyes. A man's lips conceal a woman's mouth, rendering her voiceless.

"Fortoul Brothers: Solo Exhibition" continues through Friday, December 12. The 40Owls Pop-Up Gallery is located at 815 North Central Avenue in Phoenix. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit 40Owls online.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble