If you still believe in the trite Hollywood myth of the anguished artist — alone in a cold-water, walk-up garret, frenziedly cranking out masterpieces in a couple of sustained sessions of inspired madness — you may want to see "What Goes On and What Takes Places," an exhibition at Modified Arts. Running through March 12, the show is more about the long, tedious process of creating an artwork than it is about the end product itself — and will definitely dispel any mythologized notions about making art that you might still harbor.
It will also underscore the idea that, in the case of art, it's the end product — not the steps one takes to get there — that should be of primary importance in any artist's work and especially to any exhibit that contains it, including this one.
Almost a year ago, Phoenix artist Monica Aissa Martinez had the idea to work with three other female Phoenix artists — Carolyn Lavender, Mary Shindell, and Sue Chenoweth — to create a project directly aimed at exposing their individual art-making processes, both mental and physical. Kim Larkin and Adam Murray, the husband-and-wife director team at Modified, agreed to host an exhibit of work made while the artists verbalized and divulged the steps through which they labored to end up with a work of art. Martinez created a blog, through which she tried to trace participating artists' thoughts and technical techniques, including her own — even down to the mundane aspects of framing and hanging.
All four artists in "What Goes On and What Takes Place" basically draw and/or paint in two-dimensional media, but that's about where any similarity in their work, work habits, or general influences ends. To be forthright, I don't know whether I would have necessarily put the work of the chosen participants in the same room together, given the gaping disparity in subject matter and technical acumen among them.
No matter. It's how one gets there, rather than the final destination, that's supposed to be at the core of this show, which, for us old-timers familiar with how art is spawned, can be grindingly wearisome, if not downright coma-inducing. Unless someone's drawing with a brush between the toes while doing a handstand on a galloping horse, the process is not particularly attention-holding.
We learn from Martinez's almost-yearlong blog (which could have been shortened considerably — and spellchecked) that Carolyn Lavender sucks spirit from her front yard, which has been designated an official wildlife habitat. Photos of her untamed garden and studio, filled with animal-related flotsam and jetsam, are hung near her finished work to make clear that Lavender's focus is on the organic and natural, as underscored by Portrait (2011). They explain her large graphite-and-gouache drawing/painting on canvas of a grid containing small frontal portraits of mammals and bird that she has worked on intermittently for several years. Infinitely more interesting than Portrait are two of her journal drawing/collages, interpretations that are less literal and more fanciful, overlaid with energizing ambiguity.
Though Mary Shindell also draws inspiration from desert flora, she's pushed herself beyond old, largely representational drawings (rendered with impeccable precision) toward computer-drawn imagery that features swirling, psychedelic patterns of form and shape that suggest moon landings and alien life-forms. She's even gone 3D in Lunar Landing (2010), a lovely sculptural installation created from a columnar digitalized drawing encased in plexiglass and studded with glowing spikes of optical fiber. Above the nuclear plant form hovers patterned wings — perhaps landing gear — constructed from styrene silk and aluminum. Below, a filmy, patterned silk scarf flows on the floor around the sculpture's base. Couple that with video taken of Shindell by Adam Murray as she produces the utterly satisfying, singularly sensual sound of pencil tip scratching paper's fibrous surface. Now that's process that grabs my attention.
In contrast, Sue Chenoweth's sense of the art-making process is of a classical bent — internal, intimate, tumultuous, and influenced by events in her life, often imponderable things she's interested in at any given moment (like regionalism, whales and antique mosaics in Ravenna, to name a few from a long list of interests) and strange materials that catch her fancy. (Full disclosure: I've worked with Chenoweth in the past. So I have standing to assert that trying to capture just how she creates a painting or what has influenced her is akin to trying to catch lightning in a bottle.) This artist's neural synapses fire on all cylinders to create complicated, nuanced paintings akin to visual poetry.
Being the blogmeister of the group, Monica Aissa Martinez had the heavy lifting in the project's writing department. It might have been better had she stuck solely to penning about the other three artists rather than including herself in the group, since Martinez seems to have seriously overthought and underworked her subject. In an attempt to document every possible thought, feeling, and step in her journey to creating Creative Structure — I am, Yo soy — Estructura Creativa (2011), the artist has placed several paintings depicting a human body's internal structure in cruciform shape, consciously tilting the head panel. Embarrassingly banal and painfully predictable, her paintings lack the resulting magic of her compatriots, who obviously allow themselves to transcend the rigors of the technical aspects of making art and breathe freely in that unconscious alpha state where originality is born.
Sadly, though I consider Modified's current show a form of art edu-tainment (because of its insistence on focusing on how this art was made, rather than the art itself), "What Goes On" was doomed from the get-go to fall short of that critical mark of being an important exhibition of work by talented artists.