Visual Arts

Smells Like five15 Spirit

Walk outside and take a deep breath. That's the smell of our city, set to broil. After months of breathing the aromas of melting blacktop and hot garbage, it's only fitting that five15 gallery's "What Smells So Bad?" will be up for the most miserable summer month. The olfactory-inspired group show includes works by the gallery's member artists, each with a unique take on the theme. Five15 has a habit of shaking up Roosevelt Row with shows that pull off a fresh and sometimes humorous approach to fine art (their 2007 Art Detour "$99 Only" show comes to mind, as does Roy Wasson Valle's "Dreamhouse"). It's always great to see a group of talented folks who know how to lighten up. And this show continues the quirky tradition.

Nathan Feller and Angela Frank Wells turn on a morbidly wacky sense of humor with Your Dirty Laundry, a set of clotheslines strung up in the back corner of the gallery. Panties, boxers, socks, and other undergarments hang unabashedly; each printed with funny pictures in Feller's signature vaudeville-like illustration style. The artists choose various hues resembling vomit or baby poo to render the pictures and text that all relate to stinky things.

The question posed by the title of the show is debated between a pair of tube socks. One reads, "It's not me. It's you!" While the other responds, "It's you. Not me!" The raunchiest of the bunch is an embarrassingly giant pair of granny panties with a fish stamped right on the crotch — hilariously yucky.

A small work by Angela Frank Wells called A Night at Casey's displays two matchbooks from popular Tempe neighborhood bar Casey Moore's in a frame. Anyone having spent a drunken night there will have an immediate nasal flashback through the distinctive odors of the patio — musty wood, heavy cigarette smoke, and beer burps. Not only does it bring back nights of drinking, but it also resurrects the wretched hangovers. On weekend mornings, pockets and purses all over Tempe hold these soggy, beer-soaked matchbooks that still reek of the party.

Many of the pieces followed along the same lines as those by Feller and Wells — images that conjure memories of smells. But Melissa Martinez decided to go for the gusto with her piece titled That's What Smelled So Bad. On a small shelf sit eight glass spice bottles topped with rubber-lined stoppers. Each contains a bit of steaming, rotting garbage — cigarette butts, grass clippings, and polluted soil were all on the roster. But I definitely took one for the team when I sniffed the vial holding rotting fruit. That poignant sour musk of decomposing citrus immediately brought summers in the Arcadia neighborhood to my nostrils — endless miserable hours of mowing the yard and accidentally running over a green-skinned grapefruit, pulverized by the blades and filling the air with whiffs of foulness. By far, however, the most putrid was a bottle containing brown water with bits of yuck (and what looked like a toadstool) floating. One quick inhale was all it took for me to turn around and ditch the rest of the smells. It was irrigation water and I swear I smelled it all the way down to my turning stomach.

Martinez's work is funny in an elbow-nudging kind of way. It's absolutely enjoyable and causes a strong reaction but was a literal translation for sure. The artists who pushed themselves on a strict visual level created the work that is truly impressive. Unlike Martinez, Feller and Wells couldn't rely on an actual smell for the olfactory response. Instead, they successfully created images that were strong enough to conjure aromatic memories.

In about a third of the pieces, I couldn't see a link to the theme at all. Most notable: Mary Shindell's Official Neckwear is a beautiful drawing of a bola tie, floating in negative space with a pasted photo of a cowboy for the sliding brooch. The work is a mystery to me. Pretty, yes, but I had no clue as to what I was supposed to smell. My imagination was barely able to conjure a mental whiff of leather.

This show may burn your nose hairs and turn your stomach but it certainly doesn't stink.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi