Visual Arts

Art Junkies

They call it "Phantasmagoria: De Trop Capsule Episode #2," but the scene looks like Trading Spaces meets Alice in Wonderland. Mark Freedman and Grant Wiggins wrestle with the sand-colored carpet as Oliver Hibert looks on, dark circles rimming dazed eyes.

It's one day before the innovative exhibition is set to open in the Phoenix Art Museum's Marshall Gallery, and ladders, levels and extension cords litter the tiny space. Dozens of Styrofoam clouds in varying shades of green hang from the ceiling. The walls are an explosion of color, murals, paintings, and Plexiglas display cases containing collages and "boob snake" sculptures, multicolored spirals with suggestively rounded heads.

This is the first attempt by the trio of artists collectively known as TRA 25 Capsule (the name comes from a modular Japanese style of housing popular in the '70s, and also is an acronym for Time Released Art), and also a first for the Marshall Gallery, which showcases the work of significant and under-recognized living American artists. The gallery has never shown work by local artists before, and curator Brady Roberts is particularly excited about TRA 25 Capsule's participation, along with artists from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. The show will run through mid-February.

"It's a really important time to pay attention to the art scene in Phoenix," Roberts says. With the museum so close to the galleries of Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue, which draw thousands to First Friday art shows, "It would be ridiculous if all this was happening and we had blinders on."

The Capsule's first show was at monOrchid this past May, and the museum show will be their second.

It's been an explosive past six months for Freedman (by day, an art teacher) and Wiggins (an accountant), but it's been one hell of a year for the youngest member of TRA 25 Capsule, Oliver Hibert.

Last year, Hibert created a buzz when his colorful, retro paintings, hanging on the walls of Spine, a vintage clothing boutique near 16th Street and McDowell, were spotted by a video production team working on Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle." The paintings were perfect for the video, and the production team wanted to see more.

So Hibert, now 20, called a friend with a truck and took 15 large canvases over to a house on Lincoln Drive in Scottsdale the following day. The producers invited him to stay for the shoot. "I hung out with the band for two days in this party house," he says. "There were about 100 people my age dancing around in their underwear." Hibert smiles shyly. "It was fun."

By the time the shoot was over, Hibert had sold nine of his paintings to the band's manager, producers and set designers. He walked away with $5,000 and an invitation from video director Paul Fedor to come to New York for an introduction to Manhattan's gallery scene.

Hibert was overwhelmed. "I wanted to [go] really badly; I mean, I know something like this is kind of unusual, but I didn't feel ready. I didn't want to appear somewhere and have that be it and then everything just die." He also didn't want to leave his girlfriend.

Hibert stayed and worked on replenishing his inventory. When pop art icon Peter Max came to the Valley for a book signing in January, Hibert managed to ask his idol what he should do with his career as an artist. Max suggested Hibert work in a collective, advice that would prove prophetic.

David White, owner of the now-defunct New Urban Art gallery in Phoenix, was interested in doing a pop art show. He was familiar with Hibert and Wiggins' work (Hibert had been profiled in Shade, the local art magazine published by monOrchid owner Wayne Rainey, in May 2002) and had recently been approached by Freedman as well. Both artists painted within the pop art genre, spoofing packaging and mass-market images in their work.

White introduced the three of them, and the Capsule was formed. "They did that mind-meld thing and really created a fraternity," White says. "They found a lot of support and commonality between them speaking not only the same visual language, but philosophically as well."

When White's gallery closed this past spring, the show "Popped Out: Imagery From a New Generation" was switched to monOrchid and opened on May 16. White says it justifiably generated excitement, strong imagery and a fresh take on retro stylings and generational icons. "It's pretty standout work; not a whole lot of other people are doing work referential to that time period," says White. "What's twisted is that these are people who didn't live through that time period and are captivated and inspired, but not by the same thing that inspired those [original] artists."

At the time, Hibert and the others were worried about outgrowing Phoenix. "There's only so far you can go in Arizona," Hibert told New Times in June. "I think we'll have hit the brick wall after this show. I mean, besides monOrchid there's really nowhere for us to show."

They planned to prepare media kits and send them to a carefully researched list of galleries in Tokyo, London and New York.

"We want to base ourselves in Phoenix and do things from here and travel," Wiggins said. "Phoenix will be great one day, and we'd like to be the guys -- you know -- the guys that make people say, What the fuck, these guys are from Phoenix?'"

But then they began talking to Brady Roberts, who was impressed by their monOrchid show and suggested the Capsule consider an installation for the Marshall Gallery. The trio developed a model, refined it over the past two and a half months, and the result is a delightful cacophony of color and images that borders on sensory overload. Even the museum security guards say they like the show.

Roberts says he drew inspiration from curator Dave Hickey's work on the monumental SITE Santa Fe Biennial in 2001. Hickey focused the show on the concept of "beau monde" -- a French term for beautiful world -- and showcasing each artist's interpretation of visual pleasure and beauty.

"Then September 11 happened and people decided beautiful art maybe wasn't relevant anymore," Roberts says. But since then, through a variety of studio visits to California and Nevada, Roberts has uncovered some interesting responses to pop art. The show connects the burgeoning art scene in Phoenix to that of San Francisco, L.A.'s Chinatown, and the epicenter of American pop culture, Las Vegas.

All the artists chosen evoke the beau monde concept with a pop art bent, Roberts says.

"Fresh Paint" begins softly, Roberts explains, and each artist adds to the intensity, so touring the gallery is "like turning up the volume." First is Chris Ballantyne, and his quiet, generic suburban landscapes that are eerily devoid of life. Next is Mario Correa, who paints boxing rings from skewed angles as a metaphor for the artist's struggle to put paint on canvas.

Following Correa are visually stunning, whimsical airbrush paintings by Sush Machida Gaikotsu. (Roberts says the screams of roller-coaster riders atop Vegas' Stratosphere are clearly audible from Gaikotsu's studio as he paints.)

"And from that environment you go over the top," Roberts says, into the Capsule.

Getting there has been arduous and ultimately rewarding, the artists say, as they take a break in the final hours of preparation to reflect. In a week, the three men have transformed the trailer-size space from stark to spastic. They've created a world where the ground looks like the sky, clouds look like trees, and Stephen King and Joe Namath stare down the viewer. Paintings, murals, Plexiglas and giant feet surround you. You feel like you are participating in a painting from the moment you enter the room.

The carpet has a few wrinkles, and Wiggins never did find the time to figure out a way to make certain paintings rotate with the push of a button as he'd hoped. Yet all agree they've learned a great deal and are happy with the finished product.

Wiggins says that besides hanging the clouds, which took 18 hours, "The hardest part has been staying with it for the past two and a half months from beginning to end, concept to completion."

"I've never run a marathon before," Wiggins adds wearily, "but it kinda feels like we have. We work until 9 or 10 at night and then come home and do stuff until 1:30 or 2 in the morning. . . . You don't eat so well, you don't sleep enough, you drive a little too fast," he says, "but it's so fun, this is so much fun."

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Susy Buchanan