More than a hundred different galleries, studios, and other art spaces scattered around downtown Phoenix will be open for the annual event, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And since an estimated 10,000 patrons are expected to choke the streets of Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue from Friday, March 7, to Sunday, March 9, it may start to feel like an obstacle course. Dodge the oncoming baby stroller, duck the roving street performers, and avoid eye contact with the leaflet-slinging Communist Party members. And you'll need a game plan to face the usual shabby-chic artists who'll hawk their spray-painted plywood from almost every street corner.
It's overwhelming. But don't be intimidated. Here's a quick guide to keep you calm, focused, and deliberate so you won't kick yourself later for missing some of the must-see galleries.
One such destination is the Chocolate Factory (1105 Grand Ave., 602-920-7560), which will display the stunning exhibition "Sandow Birk: The Depravities of War." Created in the SoCal artist's sumptuously dark artistic style, this series of 15 enormous, 4-by-8-foot woodblock prints depicts the debauchery and tragedy of the conflict in Iraq. Inspired by both the neo-classical paintings of Francisco de Goya and the Baroque prints of Jacques Callot, which similarly portrayed the horrors of warfare, Birk's museum-quality pieces are provocative.
Speaking of contentious issues, the redevelopment of downtown Phoenix is an endlessly argued topic amongst art scenesters, who've seen their favorite haunts transformed into overpriced lofts overnight. Though the debate has become cliché, the brightly colorful post-pop acrylic paintings of artist James Angel, on display at Modified Arts (407 E. Roosevelt St., 602-462-5516, www.modified.org), provide a different take. The 39-year-old's work blends retro and modern images, riffing on downtown's ever-changing urban landscape of vintage buildings and postmodern steel-and-glass skyscrapers.
Over the weekend, you may hear the snot-toned hiss of "totally overpriced" from some tightwad patron. But this cheapskate is the target audience of five15 gallery, whose philosophy of making affordable art has caused criticism in the past. Following on the heels of their controversial "$99 Show" last year, five15 (515 E. Roosevelt St., 602-256-0150, www.515arts.com) continues to stick it to the art snobs and asked its artist members to create works priced even lower. "The $98 Show" will include consumer-friendly paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings.
No one would dare challenge the worth of Pat Steir, the internationally renowned artist who recently splattered her priceless paint all over Bentley Projects (215 E. Grant St., 602-340-9200, www.bentleyprojects.com), completing a series of site-specific works. The looming gallery walls are covered with splotches, drips, and dramatic brushstrokes that evidence her action and play with negative space. It contrasts with Carrie Seid's more reserved show, "Emergent Features," which displays wall sculpture with an identity crisis. The works are made from copper, silk, and paint, and intend to capture light and cast shadow in ways that walk the line between painting and sculpture.
Painter Chris Santa Maria describes the annual Art Detour showcase at eye lounge (419 E. Roosevelt St., 602-430-1490, www.eyelounge.com) as something of a "greatest hits" display. And he ain't lying, as the artwork created by the gallery's 22 members is some of the best the weekend has to offer, including Santa Maria's own color-drenched abstract mixed-media piece. Equally impressive are Eliza Gregory's stark photographs of refugees who've relocated to Phoenix, as well as Brian Boner's clever paintings illustrating how seemingly random events can impact one's life.
Many of the artists you'll see probably don't make a living from this stuff. Usually, these creative souls spend their days fulfilling other peoples' visions by illustrating books and designing brochures. The opposite is true for California artist Josh Agle (better known as Shag), who hit gold with his original paintings while seeking a career as an illustrator. At Perihelion Arts (1500 Grand Ave., 602-462-9120, www.perihelionarts.com), his limited-edition prints show snippets of lavish lifestyles filled with festive cocktail parties and fancy lofts. In stark contrast is the accompanying work by popular Tucson artist Daniel Martin Diaz. Diaz tends to dabble on the darker side, often juxtaposing images of humans in pain with religious imagery — exploring undying faith through momentous suffering. Both artists, for very different reasons, will put you in the mood for a drink.
But before hitting a downtown bar, check out the Icehouse (429 W. Jackson St., 602-257-8929, www.theicehouseaz.com). Every year, the cavernous former warehouse overflows with large-scale installations and other genre-defying art. It's like eye candy. This year's "Post-West" exhibition features more than 20 experimental installations from ASU art students and other locals who interpret the myths and realism of the American Southwest and incorporate technology, found objects, and plenty of abstract design. It ain't no yawn-inducing cowboy art, to be sure. Outside the venue, 18-year-old street painter Lucas Bostrom creates a gigantic "doodle" in the asphalt courtyard, and artist Ariel Bittner displays a "temple of light" from discarded bottles and other recycled materials.
And while we're on the subject of the American West, stop by Pravus (new location at 501 E. Roosevelt St., 602-363-2552, www.myspace.com/pravusgallery), where the group exhibition "Cow-Poked: the other cowboy art show" uses the genre as a springboard for twisted interpretations and humorous jabs. The show can surely deliver a few good chuckles with works by Randy Slack, a self-taught artist who often incorporates a curious humor in his installations and paintings. Mike Maas is another prankster known for sick and twisted paintings. Other included artists are Christine Karas, the Molten Brothers, Dave Quan, and Karolina Sussland.
After a good laugh at our home state's most obvious cliché, take a look at "The Kite Show!" at the Trunk Space (1506 Grand Ave., 602-256-6006, www.thetrunkspace.com), where 12 artists re-interpret the flying fabric. The fourth annual kite show is fitting for a city with virtually windless skies — most works may never have the chance to soar through the air. Participating artists have created kites that range from metal sculpture to stuffed birds.
And if you're in the mood for something truly electrifying, the wired works of Barry Schwartz are guaranteed to shock and awe. Over the past 20 years, the mad scientist-like craftsman has specialized in large-scale interactive electrical installations — such as high-voltage utility towers or robotic turntables — in which he manipulates volts and bolts for the creation of experimental sounds and visuals. Schwartz plans on showing off images of some of his biggest projects, in addition to some chandelier-style devices which will (safely) arc electricity around his workshop at .anti_space (720 N. 4th St. www.myspace.com/antispace). Bring some rubber boots, just in case.