Visual Arts

“Looking Back on the Future” Shows Modified Arts Is in Good Hands

I got a little misty a while ago when I received an e-mail from Kimber Lanning, owner and director of Modified Arts for the past 10 years. She announced she was handing over the reins of Modified to Phoenix newcomers Kim Larkin and Adam Murray, a husband-and-wife team who defected from Pittsburgh about a year and a half ago.

Lanning is no slouch. She'll continue to run her record store, Stinkweeds, and keep her responsibilities as director of Local First Arizona. She wanted, she says, to find someone to take Modified to "the next level."

Now, Larkin and Murray are mounting their first curatorial effort, "Modified Arts: Looking Back on the Future." After checking out the couple's credentials, I have positive feelings about Modified's future offerings.

Lanning, a diminutive woman with a smoky voice and infectious laugh, opened Modified Arts in 1999 in an old building at 407 East Roosevelt Street.

Since then, Lanning has challenged the status quo by offering art exhibitions, performances, and films a cut above the usual downtown fare.

The gallery owner recalls that when she opened, there were only a handful of galleries doing business downtown. Those included Alwun House, Crasharts at the Icehouse and 3-Car Pile Up's studio, situated next to the old San Carlos Hotel. Artist Michael Levine was hosting cutting-edge exhibitions at deCompression, located in a crusty, circa-1922 cotton warehouse on South 13th Street. Barlow & Straker, named after vampire antique dealers in a Stephen King novel and run by two young Phoenix artists, Ryan McNamara and Andy Guzzonnato, was operating out of a ramshackle building on McDowell.

Modified has provided a real, third-party exhibition venue to mainly fledgling Phoenix artists who didn't have much of a chance at getting shown anywhere but the Valley's artist-run spaces. Lanning was always willing to look at anyone's portfolio and, though she didn't have a background in art, she had an instinct for potential and quality.

And she always had very cool and unusual show invitations, some of which I've actually kept, a miracle in this ridiculously disposable cultural age. Like the tiny announcement for Sergio Aguirre's show that was pasted on top of a piece of Chinese hell money and a Sudoku-looking, star-punched piece of Mylar, announcing M.M. Button and Debbie Lorray's opening reception.

Not surprisingly, individual talents shown over the years at Modified have hit their stride, gaining national and international attention. Colin Chillag's parodic, psychotically detailed paintings have been shown in L.A. and New York and included in shows at ASU Art Museum and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Painter Sue Chenoweth, who's had three Modified exhibitions, is priming for a one-woman show in May at SMoCA. The work of Carolyn Lavender has been a part of museum group shows, both here (including Tucson Museum of Art's Biennial) and in Brazil. And Lanning is proud of the fact that she gave Cuban artist Alfredo Manzo, who relocated to Phoenix several years ago, his first solo show in the U.S.

She's now handing the baton to Larkin, 26, who has a degree in art history from the University of Utah and experience running commercial and non-profit galleries. Her husband, Murray, 27, is an audio engineer who's done work for Modified in the past and is a musician passionate about new media.

Larkin says the first show is consciously designed to educate established and recently transplanted Phoenicians, together with a new generation of young local artists, about the city's art history. In the exhibition — featuring a variety of media as well as historical ephemera — that history begins in the late 1930s with painter Phil Curtis, who came to the Valley in 1936 to establish a Federal Arts Center under the Works Projects Administration; social realist WPA painter Lew Davis; and wood sculptor Phillip Sanderson.

The show continues with work created through the '90s by locals such as Dorothy Fratt, Beatrice Moore, and members of 3-Car Pile Up — Randy Slack, James Angel, David Dauncey, and Sara Abbott, to mention just a few. Artist/commercial real estate developer Sloan McFarland is even reprising a video piece he did at Barlow & Straker in the '90s.

Larkin and Murray are also working on an unlaunched Web site that will archive performances, interviews, and exhibition information. As Larkin puts it, they "want to make Modified a sophisticated contemporary arts experience with visual art, performance, and music that fits well in the space, while not taking away that raw DIY energy that exists on Roosevelt Row."

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Kathleen Vanesian

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