Visual Arts

Do Pho Is Go

On the first Friday night of every month, the art galleries in downtown Phoenix, big and small, as well as many artists' studios and temporary art spaces, open their doors to the now thousands of people who come through on self-guided tours. Since the mid-'90s, nonprofit volunteer organization Artlink has been facilitating this event, providing maps and information as well as overseeing shuttles that link the spaces. In the last few years, the number of stops on the Artlink tour has grown to the point that two different shuttle routes, one heading west from Central, the other heading east, are required to reach all 40 stops.

The artwork on First Fridays is, in a word, uneven, but if you visit the consistently fine galleries here -- Studio LoDo, for example, and New Urban Art -- to the exclusion of the other, less-polished spaces, you'll miss out on the things that make the downtown Phoenix arts community special -- the pervasive, dogged belief that making art matters, and the happy surprises. Some of the most powerful painting I saw during this past First Friday was on the walls at Art Awakenings, which has as its mission "to foster recovery from serious mental illness through avocation and vocation in the arts." When I read the labels identifying the canvases that had stopped me in my tracks, I realized I was looking at the work of Jacob Martinez, the troubled artist/arsonist this paper recently featured on its cover.

The first stop on both shuttle routes is the Burton-Barr library on Central. (Parking spaces there are plentiful, so it's a good place to leave your car if you're going to ride the bus.) The gallery in the library is small, but shows there are thoughtfully curated and installed; on display through the middle of this month are pieces by Tamara Frey, a local artist working on her MFA in sculpture at Cornell. Her work -- leaves of wood or cardboard intersecting to form objects reminiscent of badminton birdies, propellers, windmills -- is kinetic; even when it's not in motion, it looks like it's designed to be. The central installation, called Whisper, features dozens of Frey's spinning tops on vertical strings; when you blow on them, they spin quickly with a whispered thwick-thwick-thwick through the air, like parts of a whimsical air-powered machine.

I've heard stories of people waiting almost an hour for a shuttle, but I had no such trouble. My bus had none of the "performers and entertainers" that the Artlink First Friday brochure promised, but maybe that's because it was packed with people, from older white women in brocade blazers to a striking teenager with ebony skin and multiple facial piercings, whom I later identified as Lorraine Hickman, the subject of two arresting self portraits at the Metro Arts High School show called "Subject Yourself."

I got off the shuttle at Artfit, in the MonOrchid building on Roosevelt Avenue, where, as usual, clusters of people milled around out front. As it turns out, this First Friday was Artfit's last; it'll move out when its lease is up at the end of the month. According to building owner Wayne Rainey, the space it currently occupies will continue to host art shows and performances.

Fiber artist Virginia Sardi's Ultimate Indulge, an installation featuring sugar- and wax-encrusted stuffed animals, had to be taken down early, following complaints from other MonOrchid tenants about the overpoweringly sweet smell. What remains is a collection of dozens of small sock-like bundles that have been dipped in something that looks like dark wax. Pete Deise's thicket of tall, elongated metal sculptures -- part insect, part fern in appearance -- occupied one whole "room" unto themselves, where they dwarfed the people in the space. They made an unusual and surreal setting for all the human bodies standing around and, in that respect, they functioned as an installation; I suspect they have greater power in numbers than individually.

At Holga's, a building on North Third Street that comprises a gallery space and apartments for artists, there was a larger, younger, rowdier crowd. Piercings and tattoos were the rule rather than the exception. A woman set up on a temporary stage area outside the building played keyboards while children and grown-ups made chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Holga's features young and emerging artists, which is admirable, but on this particular Friday, the most interesting thing in the crowded exhibition space was the abundance of skinny young men in fur-trimmed ladies' coats.

"I redid my room again," said one of them to another as they passed, his voice monotone. Nearby, a punkish boy said to a punkish girl, "I like to mix together animals that don't go together." Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, "Me, too!"

At Modified on Roosevelt, Sophia Reilly's haunting little monotypes of fence posts in a barren landscape were selling like hot cakes. (It is the holiday season, which is why so many of these galleries are featuring smaller, less expensive "stocking stuffers" this month.) Works by Philadelphia painter Roy Miranda hung in the front room; several of his smaller paintings -- realistic yet strangely distorted portraits -- managed to assert themselves in spite of the sea of people who'd come to hear the band that would play later.

On that note, if you're more interested in the artwork than the scene, make sure you go around on the early side, and you might want to go back to the most popular spaces on Saturday or on a Friday that isn't the first in the month. What looks good on a crowded Friday night, as glimpsed through the throng, doesn't always stand up to scrutiny.

At eye lounge, the artist-run space on Roosevelt that has a generally rewarding show of small works up this month, Jennifer Urso's Message Sent looked intriguing on Friday: A light bulb glowed in a glass jar, out of which crept some vine-like wires festooned with little pieces of scorched paper. But when I went back and looked at it more closely, I was disappointed. The materials were still appealing, but the ideas behind them didn't add up, emotionally or logically. What did the wires have to do with the electrical source? Why was there no hint, even subliminal, of the nature of the message?

On the other hand, Sue Chenoweth's The Trees Provide a Network, which had struck me as drab and kind of busy when I saw it on Friday, proved, on closer inspection the next day, to be a miniature marvel. A Christmas tree decked with candy canes on the left panel balances an orange tree with branches made up of stylized swoops on the right. A few well-placed blobs and drips of white and silver paint decorate the panels and remind us of the artist's hand at work. Embedded in the panel, among the oranges in the tree, are tiny pearls. The overall effect is of an illustration for a Russian folk tale as rendered by Klimt.

It's also true that once in a while, something that looked great on First Friday will look even better in the light of day, like Carrie Bloomston's five small pieces, which are simply wonderful. In Untitled (Kissing Drawing), for example, Bloomston transforms a series of vertical lipstick kisses on paper into little embracing creatures by drawing arms and legs on the top and bottom of each mouth. The tiny tuber-shaped couples are sweet but not cute. Bloomston's other pieces in the show likewise demonstrate versatility and vision. Her solo exhibition of oil paintings on wood and on canvas, opening at eye lounge in January, promises to be one of the season's highlights.

If you do happen to come late to First Friday, when the crowds have already swelled, getting swept up in the scene is an integral part of the experience. Where else can you stumble across a 23-year-old artist who's opened up his house -- or, as he calls it, "his living quarters" -- to visitors? Friday night, on the front lawn at 412 East Garfield, a homemade sign illuminated by tiki torches announced "Mainstay," which is what Fidel Contreras has decided to call his home/art space for now. Contreras sat on a bench on his front porch, watching people stream in to admire his frenzied little wire people and raw autobiographical paintings. (His titles are terrible, but his work is not.)

"Yes, ma'am," he answered a woman politely. His eyes were invisible under the brim of his vaguely military hat, and a thin ring looped through one of his nostrils, but he sounded just as polished as any gallerist on Marshall Way. "We'll be open every First Friday."

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Deborah Sussman Susser