For many years, snowbirds and equally gentle folk have flocked to Scottsdale on cool Thursday evenings, to sip wine and stroll through the galleries that line the city's downtown streets. The artistic offerings have always varied wildly, from window after window of bad cowboy art and metal giraffe sculptures to the wait-I-must-be-in-New York sophistication of Lisa Sette and a few others.
When gallery owners in downtown Phoenix caught the art-walk bug, and started hosting First Friday openings, the results were much different: hip-hop performances after hours at the Chinese restaurant Fate, fire breathers on the street and art that ranges from something Lisa Sette might consider hanging to something that might make her consider hanging herself.
But although the amenities in Scottsdale are better -- safer parking, well-lighted streets, plenty of restaurants and bars, and rows of galleries instead of a smattering best reached by car or shuttle -- First Friday has caught on in a way that First Thursday never did. First Friday is grittier and younger, and there's electricity in the galleries generated by the patrons (funny to call them that, since they don't appear to look at the art, much less buy it), rather than the artwork.
I know the First Friday scene well, but I hadn't ventured to Scottsdale on a First Thursday in years. (The Scottsdale galleries tend to be open every Thursday evening during the cooler months, with openings on the first Thursday.) I drove to Scottsdale the evening of February 5 expecting to see only "mature" art patrons. And for the most part, yes, that's who I saw, along with a much milder selection of street music (I doubt you'd catch the cowboy guitarist with the pony-hair chaps on Roosevelt Street on a Friday night).
But I also saw many members of the Valley's arts community, out in force to support local artists with First Thursday openings -- quite a few First Friday regulars. And more important, I saw some good art.
There are more interesting galleries in Scottsdale than in years past. Over on Main Street, the front-runner is Chiaroscuro, with University of Arizona art professor Barbara Rogers' botanically rich oil paintings, shimmering with color and flowing plant forms.
The bulk of the intriguing work is on Marshall Way. Bentley Gallery (which will soon serve both cities with the addition of its downtown Phoenix Bentley Projects) is as strong as ever. This month's show features Andrew Young and Michael David. Both fit nicely into Bentley's strength in clean, abstract works, although none of the work is particularly groundbreaking.
Lisa Sette Gallery is always a favorite, simply because her aesthetic is so consistently pleasurable and firmly professional. Mark Mennin's stone sculptures are not to be missed -- and I mean that in a real, physical sense because they are long slabs with hollowed-out centers that you can actually lie in. They would be fantastic in a backyard as natural lounges that actually look good. Alain Clement, a Frenchman living in Texas (now there's some culture shock), has work in the back room at Sette that, once again, fits well with the gallery's penchant for exquisitely simple and breathtakingly beautiful works. Clement's prints combine a 19th-century photographic technique with what look like elegant needlework trees.
John Tuomisto-Bell's latest army of red-festooned, funky little bald men is on view at G2 Gallery. Unlike the artist's earlier figures, which only implied toy Army soldiers (because they were missing weapons and the hands to use them), these guys are actually ready for war. The floor installation of 32 figures is captivating as a troop formation.
Gallery Materia features Tempe artist John Nelson in a show of his simple, iconographic images of faces and objects. Across the street at the Cultural Exchange, former Grand Avenue star Casey McKee is back for a visit from his new home in Germany with a show of portraits much more colorful than his usual work. McKee's personal journey through a recent relationship serves as the premise for the strongest pieces in the show, which provide an unprecedented opportunity to see him in some pretty gripping moments (including a Casey-in-drag shot).
There is both good and bad to be found on the first Thursday and Friday art walks, and that is what makes them interesting. If it was all predictable, why would we go?