The art installations created by Jen Urso are some of the most unique work in the Valley. In 2005, she arranged bits of chipped and broken concrete around the Icehouse to represent the decay of Phoenix's urban core. And in 2006, the 38-year-old artist covered Modified Arts with an enormous web of white bakery string that was connected to a small handmade notebook.
Urso's latest installation Saying No, which opens tonight at Modified, fits in well with her penchant for odd and unusual pieces, as well as her yen for art with complex symbolism.
"It always comes from being uncomfortable a little bit with typical art spaces," she says. "My experience has always been, the more conceptual a work is, the more approachable it is to wider spectrum of people because they don't know what to expect so they're more open to it."
And Urso hopes that those who visit the Roosevelt Row gallery tonight will be open to the message offered by her installation, which essentially boils down to this: Don't do what they tell you.
Saying No consists of a series of videos and photographs documenting Urso's response to various signage around downtown Phoenix prohibiting certain verboten activities, such as placards smoking in certain place, trespassing, or even having your dog off its leash.
The nature of humans to obey these prohibitive signs (well, for the most part) fascinated Urso, as did the behavioral boundaries it creates.
"There's so much verbal and audible information being thrown at you about what you can and cannot do and we just seem to digest it so readily that it seems like its necessary to have a reaction to that," she says. "The [installation] looks at all these limits to our behavior from all these signs. Its sort of symbolizes the boundaries that we do or don't cross based on what we're being told what to do."
Over the past few years, Urso took long walks around downtown and wrote down all the messages put forth by these signs.
"I started compiling all the warning signs that I encountered that told me what to do. So that exploded into this reaction to the city reflecting all that language that's constantly directing your behavior, and how we just sort of comply with it."
Urso made a series of Plexiglas signs that were filled with different combinations of the words and phrases she wrote down, which were printed in reverse type with clear lettering. After attaching her creations to these same prohibitive signs around downtown, she explains, the sun would shine through and project the text onto the ground.
Urso shot still photographs and recorded videos of how sunlight passed through her signs and the words projected on the ground "sort of shift these areas of behavior modification around."
While envisioning how to create the installation, which will feature still images she shot of her signs, Urso says she aimed to incorporate its elements and messages inside the gallery in order to "have a strong impact without it just being shit on a wall."
As such, Saying No will include time-lapse videos and animation projected through the Plexiglas signs onto various parts of Modified's interior. A non-stop loop of clouds moving through the sky will also be projected onto the floor.
"Clouds are a metaphor in this case because it really has no boundary lines, it doesn't have a defined concrete edge. That boundary is an illusion and clouds are always changing shape, just like the boundaries between people interact or speak with each other are an illusion."
The video also serves as a social experiment of sorts, she adds.
"The projection on the floor creates a boundary itself that people can or cannot walk through," Urso says. "My guess is that most people will walk around it because that's what people do when they're presented with lines and boundaries. It presents the challenge of crossing a line within the space itself."
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The point to all this very heady and cerebral content, she says, is to help visitors to Saying No to do just that: Learning to say no to certain things.
"It's an approach to try and figure out a different way of functioning in the world that allows us to be more thoughtful, think more independently, and not fall in line with social expectations all the time. I'm just trying to spur people to think for themselves a little bit more." Urso says. "There's something so powerful in the 'yes' and the 'no' and we don't exercise it enough. We don't always have to be so wishy-washy and are capable of putting our foot down and stating what we want."
An opening reception for Jen Urso's Saying No takes place from 6-9 p.m. tonight at Modified Arts. Admission is free. The show will be on display until October 13.