Visual Arts


Maybe I'm just getting old. Or maybe Art Detour is just getting too complicated. After spending seven straight hours boarding buses and pounding the pavement on Art Detour Sunday, I still didn't see half of the stops on the two separate art routes offered. And much of what I saw I could have lived without seeing.

By 5 p.m. March 20, the official closing time for the sixth annual self-guided, downtown gallery and studio tour sponsored by Artlink, Inc., I never wanted to see another piece of art in my life. And I was seriously in need of chiropractic services.

Thirteen new spaces were added to this year's overly packed tour, says A. Nannette Taylor-Varela, executive director of Artlink, who pronounced Art Detour 6 very successful, despite steady rain that Saturday.

"The purpose of Art Detour is to acquaint people, whether first-time visitors or longtime residents, with Phoenix's downtown cultural life," says Taylor-Varela. "It's a positive, across-the-board look at our arts scene, with both ends of the art spectrum being represented. We have professional midcareer artists as well as beginning artists who participate."
Certain artists who participated in this year's circuit don't agree with Taylor-Varela's assessment of Art Detour's success, however. Artist and playwright Gerald Hawk, whose work, along with that of four other artists, was being shown at Planet Gallery in the Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre building, was frustrated by the lack of attendance at the gallery. Of course, the fact that the official Art Detour guide didn't indicate that there was anything other than performances scheduled at Planet Earth didn't help attract patronage for the mural-decorated destination.

"It was a weird Art Detour," says the disappointed Hawk. "It was very down. Lots of spaces put time and money into it that they didn't get back. The weather didn't help."
Artist Rose Johnson, a four-time Art Detour participant whose studio on East Taylor was previously the site of Metropophobobia, chalked up slower traffic flow at her location to the fact that she was the only artist in her area on the tour this time around. Visitors didn't relish being stranded for 20 minutes waiting for the next shuttle just to see her studio, especially those who had seen Johnson's work on display at deCompression Gallery on South 13th Street.

"Phoenix Forge used to be open, as well as Catherine's Rare Papers studio," Johnson told me in a lilting English accent. "Having several spaces open on the street gave more strength to this area."
Despite complaints, criticism and my kvetching about shin splints, Art Detour was a good opportunity to get an inside glimpse of Phoenix's budding downtown art community, which has real potential to survive and thrive if it isn't wiped out by baser commercial interests, like Jerry Colangelo's proposed baseball stadium.

And Art Detour was a great way to entertain those pesky, out-of-town guests who constantly test your tour-guiding mettle.

The biggest problem on the tour was being able to augur which stops offered potentially interesting art for my somewhat jaded aesthetic palate. I had to wade through a lot of objets d'barf to get to anything good. The wading included less-than-artful reproductions of pre-Columbian ceramic figures at Museo Chicano in the Mercado (this after walking up three flights of stairs) and booths selling swap-meet stuff around the Willow House, billed by the tour brochure as home to "the works of 150 local artists, whose work ranges from painting to jewelry to dreamcatchers to pottery."

I'm essentially egalitarian when it comes to art, but a little judicious editing of participants may be the key to better public support for this event.

For me, several installations ended up being the stars of Art Detour, including "Six right of 7 south" by Martina Shenal at deCompression. It was a haunting, multimedia environment created by the artist as a tribute to her grandmothers, Mary and Christina, who lost a father, brother and son in a 1968 Farmington, West Virginia, coal-mine disaster. Shenal's title refers to the location inside a mine where 78 men died after a series of gas explosions turned the mine into a tomb.

But it was the collaborative, site-specific installation by Mexico City's X'TeReSa Alternative Art group members Humberto del Olmo and Juan Manuel Romero at the Icehouse on Jackson Street, home of CRASHarts, that knocked me on my proverbial butt. Del Olmo told me his portion of the installation, titled "Tlaloc," which is the name of the ancient Aztec rain deity, had taken him six months to create and perfect.

Entering the womblike entrance to a cavernous, dimly lighted brick room with a 60-foot ceiling, the viewer first saw a massive, uterus-shaped, metal-mesh enclosure on the back wall into which chirping parakeets had been released; the floor of the room was covered with real sod, and in its center was a pool of water filled with upside-down clay pots. The pots were topped with circles through which infrared light beams were reflected by a series of small mirrors. Ruby-colored beams melded with occasional bursts of steam coming from the pool's edge, while recorded sounds of a bubbling caldron reverberated throughout the room and mingled with live bird music. I felt as if I had entered the moist, awesome center of the universe.

"The circles on the pots represent the eyes of Tlaloc," explained del Olmo, "and the pots refer to vessels for holding water, the essential ingredient of life. I liked the idea of using the rain god here in Phoenix, which is really a desert."
And Phoenix may remain a desert, culturally speaking, if plans for destroying a large part of the downtown Warehouse District to make way for a baseball stadium and adjacent parking lots go through. According to Beatrice Moore, founding mother of Art Detour and now a passionate advocate for the preservation of the historic downtown Jackson Warehouse District, more than a third of the district has already been demolished to make way for America West Arena, once touted as the panacea for downtown Phoenix's ills. Almost two-thirds of this important historical area will vanish to accommodate the envisioned baseball stadium, including three of the most architecturally significant buildings in the district: the Stern Produce, King's Onion House and Charlie Case Tire buildings, two of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

These architectural treasures, potential sites for artists' lofts, apartments and culturally related retail businesses, will be irrevocably lost should the county's plan actually materialize, along with Phoenix's golden chance to be viewed as a city that really cares about art and culture.

"The art presence downtown is very tenuous as it is," Moore says. "If the stadium is built next to the America West Arena, there will be no potential for future arts-related activity--no opportunity for downtown to be an eclectic, mixed-use area in an historic district--because there will be very few buildings left in which artists can live and work. "It's the age-old problem of artists gravitating to areas where the rents are cheap, fixing them up, making them safe and then not being able to afford to stay in what they've created."
Moore has already been relocated from a downtown studio on Madison Street, mowed down to make way for America West Arena. Now she has heard that the building to which she relocated in 1989, as well as others near the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Jackson Street and the building that once housed the Faux Cafe studios, is on the auction block because of speculation sparked by the proposed baseball stadium.

"Why not put the stadium south of the railroad tracks, instead of obliterating a large section of the Warehouse District for parking lots?" Moore says. "No formal site study was ever done before the county Board of Supervisors voted on the issue, nor were any environmental-impact studies undertaken. There is a viable alternative to destroying a major part of our architectural heritage."
No more artists anchoring downtown means no more Art Detours; sadly, it also means no more chances to foster what has a good possibility of becoming a Southwestern version of Soho. Once those venerable old buildings in the Warehouse District--buildings that are an integral part of this city and state's history--are leveled in a vainglorious attempt to realize Jerry Colangelo's field of dreams, they can't be resurrected. You just can't unring a bell. And this bell would appear to be a death knell for art growth in the Valley.

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Kathleen Vanesian