When I first moved to the Valley two years ago, I did the expected thing--I made a visit to Sedona. I was interested in the town for many reasons: the allure of the name, which comes from Sedona Schnebly, who founded the town with husband Carl in 1902; the spot's reputation for New Age flakiness, which emerged during the 1980s; and the fact that one of my favorite painters, Max Ernst, who lived in the lee of the red rocks during the 1940s, once said that the only two places he wanted to live were Paris and Sedona.

That first visit to Sedona didn't disappoint me in the natural beauty department, but my visits to local galleries in the faux-18th century Spanish plaza of Tlaquepaque and the Hillside and Hozho Centers left me both disheartened and, for some reason, very sleepy. Primarily filled with gaudy Western paintings and a cloud of dream catchers, Sedona galleries gave me the impression that little or nothing was left of Ernst's modernist legacy.

So I didn't quite know what to think when I saw the invitation in my mailbox. It was gorgeous. I slipped off the pearly white wrapper blobbed with teal, yellow and crimson paint to reveal an archaic, boxy typeface telling me of an event that could be interesting, if somewhat unlikely: the opening of the Select Gallery in Sedona, a contemporary space owned by Dallas art dealer Paul Adelson, his wife, the artist Robyn Adelson, and Sedona realtor Bruce Tobias.

If the invitation for the August 24 event were an indication of the art to be found in the new Select Gallery, it could be worth the trip.

After all, the Gallery Forest, which shows contemporary work, albeit ultra-mainstream, opened in Sedona a year ago. Could the tiny hamlet of Sedona, the cradle of traditional cowboy painting, be going back to modernism?

To find out, I turned right onto Interstate 17 and headed north. Despite a perilously loose fan belt that began to emit an embarrassing, baby-like cry right around Oak Creek, I made record time and squealed off Highway 89A into the parking lot flanking the Select Gallery. I hopped into the back seat of my car, changed out of my cut-offs and halter top into something more befitting a hard-hitting art writer, exited my sleek but dirty brown Chrysler, and entered the Select.

Fearful that the mime standing outside the door would talk to me, I made my way quickly through the door. The place was packed, truly packed. There was a two-man guitar-and-stand-up-bass combo playing salsa-esque music. You had to scream to be heard over the din of voices.

The gallery walls, which form a flattering white background, were packed with art and various crafts. On the floor stood pieces of handmade furniture and one pedestal after another shouldering pots and sculpture. Glass cases stood by, filled with jewelry and metalwork.

The Select's debut selections were, to my mind, pretty evenly hit or miss. I was puzzled by the inclusion of a couple of mall-esque drawings depicting baseball players, as well as the garish mixed-media abstracts of David McCullogh, which recalled 1970's terrarium sand art. Colored-sand concoctions were awful then; they're still awful.

There were some really beautiful pieces by up-and-coming Sedona artist Karen Licher. I admired "Sedona Flood Story," Licher's emotionally moving show at the Sedona Arts Center earlier this year. It included pieces constructed with organic debris and remnants of peoples' lives found by the artist after the devastating Oak Creek flood of 1993.

Licher's paintings, prints and sculptures at the Select gallery use wood, sand, colored soil and metallic patinas which swirl around and have a really appealing worn smoothness to them. Her paintings "Earthen Window: Aspiration" and "Earthen Window: Definition" drew me in.

Chris Regas' lonely and evocative photographs, "The Long Walk Home" and "Windy Day at Santa Elena," were impressive, as were Santa Fe artist Stan Berning's wonderful constructivist-looking gouaches and watercolors, like "Window #28." Also interesting was Gregory Horndeski's obsessive "The Last Piece of Functional Art You'll Ever Need," which features a black wood and Masonite box covered with the artist's painstakingly lettered and hopefully ironic narrative explaining the value of artistic terrorism. Flip open the latch to reveal a shiny "pipe bomb."

One might think that any attempt to get a modern art gallery to fly in Sedona would necessarily flop, but the location is exactly what appealed to Paul Adelson. He was convinced by Wiley Ware, an abstract painter he handles both in Dallas and at the Sedona gallery, and who is currently the Select Gallery director.

Ware, as Adelson explains, made yearly trips to Sedona, always returning with the suggestion that Adelson open a gallery there because of the beautiful surroundings and "lack of modern art." Adelson took those words to heart, and, as he says, "came to Sedona, fell in love with it and that was that." After a 30-minute lunch meeting with his Sedona realtor, Bruce Tobias, Adelson and Tobias became partners in the Select Gallery project. Adelson is confident that his niche exists in the red rocks.

"Sedona is an art community pretty much known for Western and Southwestern art, but what people want is changing now," says Adelson. "People are hungry for more modern art. It's not like we are showing the out-on-the-edge art you'd see in New York, L.A., Chicago, but the gallery would die trying to sell art like that. But we are much more out on the edge than anything else here."
I chatted, or, rather, had high-decibel conversations, with many folks who giddily rattled off multiple variations of "I've never seen anything like this here." The crowd was seriously eating it up. In fact, it was the most well-attended and party-like opening I had been to in a while. The champagne flowed and was actually being consumed. People were not doing the eat-and-bolt thing, but were lingering instead. The hours went by and an opening that was to end at 7 p.m. was still going at ten. A petite and well-coifed brunette salsa-ed past me with a glass of champagne held high. In the words of the late Charles Bukowski, "Something was happening."

Jim Bishop is an 11-year Sedona resident who authored last year's Epitaph of a Desert Anarchist: The Life of Edward Abbey, spent 20 years working at Newsweek and four years in the Carter administration on the Solar Power Commission, and for the past two years has chaired the Sedona Arts Commission. He says what is happening is symptomatic of deeper sociopolitical changes taking place in Sedona.

"The Select Gallery is the first real breakthrough," explains Bishop. "This town has been, like Santa Fe, closely identified for a very long time with cowboy art. Now the demographic of people coming here to buy art, as well as that of the artists themselves, is changing. You're seeing a diversification in style, and I think a lot of people coming here from New York and Europe don't want to buy cowboy art. There are younger people coming in now and they want to see fresher, trail-breaking, modern work."
Bishop says the biggest potential problem now for the rapidly expanding arts community in Sedona is the same one that plagues Santa Fe--lack of affordable housing. According to a recent article in the New York Times, that shortage is also contributing to the collapse of Santa Fe's art market. A lack of affordable housing makes life understandably difficult for most artists. The Arts Commission tries to counter that, Bishop says, by working with developers and local businesses, encouraging them to incorporate artists' work spaces and public art into their building projects. "We don't mandate it, because that is probably illegal, but we strongly suggest it," he says.

What cannot hurt the aims of the Arts Commission is a recent study showing that the 750 or so Sedona artists--up from an estimated 300 in 1991--are generating 25 percent of the retail economy of the town of 6,000. That's about $15 million per year.

"There is so much development here," sighs Bishop. "We have more real estate offices than churches."
Bishop explains that upcoming plans for a new cultural center, expanded artists' work spaces and a nonpolluting transportation system are controversial to Sedonans' nostalgia for the "good old days" of the mid-1950s to mid-1970s.

Bishop claims that the alleged "good old days" never existed. "When they talk about the good old days, they refer to a time period when Sedona was a dirt road with a few rattlesnakes on it. Sedona residents did their shopping in Flagstaff. There are people living here full-time trying to make a living now and we need more spaces to exhibit the talent we have. This town is getting serious." I left the Select Gallery at about ten and met up with Karen Licher, her husband, the musician and artist Bruce Licher, as well as the two suave gentlemen, Zirque Bonner and Fitzhugh Jenkins, whose tunes sashayed the aforementioned bold brunette around the room. Starved, we went for Thai food and further discussed the state of the arts in Sedona, likely purchases upon winning the lottery and the occasional horrors of having a day job.

It was all very delightful, but when the table talk moved on to the subject of how putting plants in different locations can affect the movement of energy throughout the house, I began to get an eerie sensation. My frightened expression prompted sympathy from my fellow diners.

"It's just a very Sedona conversation," they gently explained.

Loose Ends
Listen up, because I won't be telling you this again. Go to the Harry Woods Gallery and see Kay Emig's motel paintings. They are on view only until Friday, September 22, which makes me wonder what someone was thinking by showing them so briefly. Whatever.

The show is called "Motel Fantasyland," and if you are appreciative of the poignant seediness of urban decay, you'll love them. Emig does a vividly colored, smash-up job of rendering its haunting attraction in ultra high detail, recalling L.A. artist Robert Williams. Works of beauty. Much fun to be had at the MARS Artspace, too. Prolific area artist Rose Johnson has loads of new paintings and monotypes on view. Thirty, in fact, many featuring local artists as subject matter. Some pieces possess a light energy and humor that I haven't seen in Johnson's previous work. "Gerald," in his seersucker sports jacket, for example, really stands out, as does "Lisza," who may give you nightmares. Check out S. Mindrum-Logan's lovely and complex mixed-media works and paintings while you're there. All on view through September 29.

Karen Casey Gallery is two or three doors down from MARS. Maybe 20 steps or so. That's ten seconds of your life. Elizabeth Cheche's new paintings, which literally run off the canvas, particularly, "Loss" and "Artificial Roses," are worth seeing. So are Laura Artusio's almost anachronistic still lifes.

Artusio has those antiquated glazing techniques down. She painted the still lifes in the style of northern Renaissance nature morts, but arranged the apples, oranges and other fruit models in ways that Klaesz and Hals never would have. On view until October 3.

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