Visual Arts

State of the Art

I got a bead on the overall quality of art shown this past First Friday in downtown Phoenix when I ended up rating a trip through the funky, skanky Hermanos Drive-In Food Market on Grand Avenue the real high point of the evening.

So maybe I'm being just a bit hyperbolic, but, with the exception of a few standouts, I really have to wonder whether it was worth walking for four hours on the first Friday in June through record heat and questionable air quality for the pleasure of seeing so much that impressed me so little. (If you do decide to visit any of the places mentioned below, be sure you call ahead for hours, which vary, beyond First Friday.) My recent foray essentially ended up being an architectural tour of cool old Craftsman-style houses and neglected buildings that have been rehabbed by entrepreneurial artists committed to resuscitating what was just a few years ago an almost lifeless urban core.

Case in point is the miraculous appearance of an entire block of galleries on Fifth Street ensconced in charming little houses dating back to the early to mid-1900s. Be sure to see Untitled at 906 North Fifth Street (602-999-3939), a nicely restored house with wooden floors and plastered walls partially peeled to reveal their original wooden slat undersurface, though the art gracing them wasn't particularly compelling. And be advised that 6th Street Studios, 918 North Sixth Street, started and developed by Greg Esser and Cindy Dach, has been taken over by Redeye Gallery, "a collective space of photographic artists."

If you're a diehard, I'd suggest hitting several places on Roosevelt Street this time around, including 515 at 515 East Roosevelt (480-217-7556) to see the beautifully crafted silver art jewelry of Ali Kauss, much of which calls to mind sinuous alien life forms. Don't miss the baroque pearl and skunk claw necklace hanging on a back wall. Up the street at Modified Arts, 407 East Roosevelt (602-462-5516), large-scale pop-inspired paintings by James Angel and Randy Slack are worth a gander, especially Angel's latest work, which has matured considerably. The winner for Most Engaging Art by a Complete Unknown goes to Joseph Oursland, showing through June at monOrchid, 215 East Roosevelt (602-253-0339). In his first public showing, Oursland shines with enormous, crazed, often creepy canvases that draw on everything from tightly rendered photographic representation to comic-book and anime characters.

If you're jonesin' for a little bit of L.A. from the mid-'80s, go directly to Perihelion Arts, 1500 Grand Avenue (602-462-9120), where the snappy works on wood of Daniel Bigelow are on display. Perihelion brings to mind the good old days of Billy Shire's seminal shop Soap Plant, a fixture on Melrose Avenue in the heyday of hipness past. Right next to the Bikini Lounge, the gallery attracted an interesting audience Friday night, like an enthusiastic fund-raising crew from Arizona Roller Derby ( who set up shop on the sidewalk outside. For some respite from the heat, slip into the Paper Heart for a brewski and some tunes at 750 Grand Avenue (602-262-2020). The remodeled 1950s tiki-torches-at-twilight building alone is worth the stop there.

One thing I've proven to myself -- and the stalwart witnesses who volunteered to accompany me -- is that it is virtually impossible to see even half of the galleries and venues offered on First Fridays. And God knows we tried, starting along Roosevelt down to Sixth Street, then hitting Grand Avenue, with several places like Thought Crime, 1019 North Central, in between (make sure to see the exhibition in the back room featuring art, video and cultural artifacts, especially the "martyr" posters, related to the current Palestinian crisis). We never got to the Icehouse, Studio LoDo (a ball game in progress made the prospect of finding reasonably priced parking a cruel joke) or to Bentley Projects, 215 Grand Avenue (602-340-9200), because, by that point in our travels, it felt like the gallery was halfway to the moon.

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Kathleen Vanesian