Visual Arts

For Art's Sake

Don't ask me how I came to be a gallery curator. I suppose it happened because I finally grew tired of complaining about how the downtown art scene just wasn't giving me enough of what I wanted. And about how, not so many years ago, one went, on any given Friday night, to Radix Gallery to see new work by Jim Cherry or Bob Adams (and a new artist named Mayme Kratz), then on to MARS Gallery to see what Jeff Falk and Annie Lopez were up to, and finally to Gallery X for an evening of thrillingly creepy performance art.

Back then, hanging out wasn't the point, it was an after-art kind of thing that one did at places like Metropophobobia, a café/gallery where we met to compare notes on the exhibits we'd seen that night and to discuss art with whomever was hanging around — Rose Johnson, Pete Petrisko, Linda Ingraham, Janet DeBerge Lange — artists who moved and shook back when the downtown art scene was more about art and less about hanging out and drinking wine.

I know there are still movers and shakers in the downtown art business today. There's Helen Hestenes and the (soon-to-close) Icehouse and Beatrice Moore, the official queen of Grand Avenue, who's all about art (so much so that I'll need a whole other essay to cover it). And I love that Roosevelt Row and First Friday (the official website for which tells us "is about the inner-city urban experience" — but what about the art?) and the Grand Avenue galleries have created an excitement around art and artists.

But I wish this scene were more about art and less about partying. The established artists I love are rarely shown downtown anymore, and if they are, it's in a group show, where their work often as not shares space with junk by kids who are entering a gallery scene that's not really set up to nurture them.

Which is why, rather than just complain about the sad state of affairs — and don't think I don't still bitch up a storm, because I do — I became a curator of art. I started booking shows by established artists and the occasional up-and-comer at a local gallery, not because I have a secret desire to work for free, but because I've begun to worry that no matter how hard arts advocates like Beatrice and Greg Esser and Cindy Dach work to provide places for artists to show their work, others have to step up and make sure that the bulk of that work is worth seeing. Otherwise, I'm convinced, the art scene in downtown Phoenix will devolve into a party at which paintings by the sister of the best friend of the gallery owner's next door neighbor have been hastily hung and are beside the point, anyway. And because I'm convinced that an arts community, no matter how vibrant, can't just be about displaying new artists but must also be about nurturing the careers of the folks who've been painting and sculpting and creating all along.

Otherwise, they leave. Jeff Cochran, a talented painter of abandoned downtown Phoenix buildings, found representation in New Mexico about eight years ago. Eddie Dominguez, whose paintings and charcoal sketches depicted our local skyscrapers as the Holy Trinity, moved his studio to Las Vegas in 2005. Chris Winkler, a painter of some local renown, took off for California more than a decade ago. He was, he told me at the time, tired of waiting for someone to discover his work (which was — and presumably still is — brilliant).

If we want artists to stay, we have to offer the promise that they won't be overlooked in favor of kids who are just getting started. We have to make wall space available both for those who've been toiling for decades and for up-and-comers. And so I, finally tired of carping, found a gorgeous little gallery at Seventh Avenue and Thomas and persuaded its owners to let me book a year's worth of exhibitions there. At Willo North Gallery (you can find it on Facebook; the gallery has no website at the moment), I'll mostly be showing work by established artists like Janet DeBerge Lange, Lawrence McLaughlin, Annie Lopez, Jeff Falk, and the late Sean O'Donnell, but I'll also be featuring work by talented and undiscovered artists, like the exhibit of work by painter Eric Cox that I have up now.

I know: I have a lot of nerve, working alongside gallery owners and curators who've been doing this for years — not to mention promoting my own exhibits on this page. But that old adage about being part of the solution has lately been stuck in my head and, in the meantime, I find myself heading away from downtown Phoenix when I want to look at art. Mayme Kratz's new show, now on display at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery, is a stunner, and Sette (whose sophisticated aesthetic sets the bar for every other gallery in town) is including a new show by conceptualist and video artist William Wegman, one of her stable of artists, in May. ASU Art Museum is offering more: Gregory Sale's Social Studies program expands on the old artist-in-residence idea by having Sale transform an empty gallery into work created through interaction with both its audience and other artists. ASU museum director Gordon Knox has latched onto a new national trend in mixed disciplines and, in partnership with other ASU schools, is creating programs that blend science and sustainability with visual art. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art continues to push limits with shows from talents like Brazilian conceptualist Rivane Neuenschwander, a multi-media artist whose "A Day Like Any Other" (opening next month) is the first comprehensive exhibition of her work.

Downtown, things are still a little less exciting. Still, I'm counting the minutes until Peter Bugg's show this April at eye lounge, a collective with a real commitment to emerging artists. I'm certain that Greg Esser's soon-to-open Regular Gallery on Sixth Street will offer stunning shows by talented, committed artists (there are rumors that he'll be doing a Brian Boner exhibit — I hope so). The Phoenix Art Museum's upcoming season is sort of a snooze, with no big touring show included. But Self and Nation, a Mexican modernist exhibition of paintings and sculptures made in the first half of the last century, looks really interesting for July.

In the meantime, I'm pinning my hopes on Modified Arts and its new director, Kim Larkin. Modified, which is in the dead center of the party-hearty First Friday/Roosevelt Row scene, appears to be steering away from the whole party vibe and is focusing instead on the art — huzzah! — showing new and established artists from here and abroad. Larkin's recent exhibit of work by Saskia Jordá (and her current show by multi-media artist Brent Bond) is exactly the sort of "real" art that Roosevelt Row needs in order to grow. Two more galleries like this, showing similarly stunning work, and we'll have a downtown arts scene that is once again about the art, and not about cheap wine in a plastic cup.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela