Visual Arts

Claire Lawton on How the Mural Scene Boomed but Some Galleries Went Bust

It was a weird year for Arizona and a bright one for Phoenix. In 2011, the national spotlight hovered over the state's border policies and political characters — even in the naming of its official state gun (the Colt single-action Army revolver — classy, huh?).

Truth is, spotlights are rarely flattering, and the images of protest and unrest that crowded television screens and front pages were often cringe-worthy, at best. But it was also during this time, at the center of attention, that Phoenix shined its brightest. Sure, it was a hell of a year — it was a hell of a productive year for local art.

During SB 1070 rallies, Irma Sanchez created and distributed patchwork U.S./Mexico flags, an anonymous team hung an anti-SB 1070 banner from a construction crane, and organizations such as the Arizona [email protected] Arts and Cultural Center and XICO launched exhibitions of political posters by Safwat Saleem, satirical masks by Zarco Guerrero, and charged lotería cards by Annette Sexton-Ruiz. On the street, images of immigrants, border fences, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio were pasted on public walls and stenciled on sidewalks.

In light of the tarnished reputation of Arizona (and its Mexican community), a mural program was launched that continues to strengthen and beautify 16th Street. Local artist DOSE used a scissor lift and countless cans of paint to communicate a bold message, "Right to Remain," that covers the 20-foot-by-125-foot wall of Michael Levine's Seed & Feed building in downtown's warehouse district. And in October, the city saw six weeks of Latino-themed cultural arts programming, with performances from such locals as Zarco Guerrero, playwright James E. Garcia, choreographer Michèle Ceballos, and artists from across the Mexican border that spread the simple message: SB 1070 tried to tear us apart, but we're still standing, and we're stronger than ever.

The year in art hasn't been entirely Latino-themed, of course, and artists from all backgrounds made their mark in the national scene. Colin Chillag landed the cover of New American Paintings and was included in the 19th volume of national arts magazine Hi-Fructose, Miles MacGregor (who goes by "El Mac") covered walls from Grand Avenue to Spain to Vietnam with his signature large-scale murals, and this month, Ernesto Yerena traveled to Miami to participate in a live-art exhibition at Art Basel.

In 2011, the local art scene faced its fair share of economic downturn and inevitable goodbyes to local creative anchors. Dozens of galleries closed on Roosevelt Row, including Pravus, Perihelion, CADE, and Galeria de los Muertos. The pop-up gallery bubble — begun here in vacant spaces on Marshall Way in Scottsdale — popped as the creatives who opened Soyal, Squeeze, and 5 and 6 closed up shop. Mill Avenue's long-gone arts district was pared down to a few bars surrounded by empty storefronts.

But where there's vacancy, there's also opportunity. The glass-blowing fiends from Circle 6 set up shop in the old Pravus space, a museum dedicated to local design enjoyed a month-long pop-up in a downtown warehouse, a collaborative of artists and designers opened The Lab in the former Perihelion space, and 5 and 6's Lalo Cota and Thomas "Breeze" Marcus, along with Pablo Luna, will open Por Vida Gallery on 16th Street in February. Local painters and street artists including Cota, Breeze, Luster Kaboom, JB Snyder, Sentrock, and Joe Pagac have enjoyed a wave of mural commissions (and unofficial approval) from local businesses who'd much rather showcase a piece of public art than a stucco wall.

On Mill Ave, the city of Tempe took over an empty space and opened a co-op studio/gallery space. And in the spring, the public art programs of both Tempe and Scottsdale will coordinate and sponsor temporary installations in the two cities' empty business windows through a program called IN FLUX.

Now if they can all just stick around through 2012 . . .

There's hope that next year will hold less conflict and a better economy, but because of these situations, creatives were pushed to their limits, forced to take risks, and given the opportunity to speak to a national audience. It's been a weird year for Arizona, and if our politicians have anything to say about it, the weirdness will continue. And the arts community will be more than ready to talk.

2011 in Art: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Iconic images: Political posters by Safwat Saleem, Jesus Barraza, and Ernesto Yerena became icons for immigration discussion in Arizona.

Introducing . . .: Murals, wheatpases, stencils, stickers, and pieces by such local artists as Gennaro Garcia, Jenny Ignaszewski, antigirl, Citizen, DOSE, HMPH, and a number of crews made a splash in the community.

SMoCA Lounge emerges: Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art debuted its glowing red SMoCA Lounge by Janis Leonard, which left us scratching our heads at the so-called fab furniture fashioned from reclaimed pallets and a little self-conscious in the (very red) spotlights.

National spotlight: The new edition of New American Paintings hit the shelves with examples of artwork by locals including Laura Spalding Best, Sue Chenoweth, Colin Chillag, Saskia Jorda, Carrie Marill, Jen Urso, and Steven J. Yazzie (to name a few).

Gone but not forgotten: We'll miss Pravus, Perihelion, CADE, 5 and 6, Squeeze, and Kim Larkin's days as director of Modified Arts.

Welcome additions: We're pumped about Art Intersection opening in Gilbert and the launch of Joseph Sentrock Perez's Rise Project, which offers urban arts classes to low-income youth.

Snakes alive: ASU Art Museum played host to a live anaconda (and all of its shed skin) as part of the exhibition "Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect."

Spiak splits town: We'll miss the days of ASU Art Museum curator John Spiak, who left town for a gig as director/chief curator of California State University-Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

Change of scenery: We were amped about the Rob Dyrdek-sponsored "Safespot Skatespot" — until location plans changed from downtown's Margaret T. Hance Park to South Phoenix's César Chávez Park.

Roll 'em: We hope the indie cinema explosion, with theater openings including downtown's FilmBar and Mesa's The Royale, continues to bring independent films to our backyard.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton