It was a banner year in metro Phoenix for exhibitions featuring works created or collected by some of the world's most famous artists. Phoenix Art Museum presented exhibitions featuring works by Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Ai Weiwei. And the Heard Museum presented photographs from Frida Kahlo's personal collection. But for the most part, this year's best exhibitions featured works by local artists, including some who delivered intriguing variations on their usual themes. These are the 10 best exhibits we saw in metro Phoenix this year.
“Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra”
Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum
December 19, 2014 through March 22, 2015
Prescott artist Julie Comnick spent nine months asking musical instrument shops across the country for violins deemed beyond repair. After gathering almost 100 violins, she took them to a mountaintop clearing and then set them alight at dusk. For 12 hours, she watched them burn — and recorded what transpired. Comnick's video became the source material for a series of large-scale paintings featured in "Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra" at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, which is located on the Mesa Arts Center campus. The exhibition, in which Comnick used the violin as a metaphor to explore the relationship between “increasing technology and diminishing cultural heritage,” also included her video. Her work also prompted reflection on historical episodes of book burning and censorship, devastation wrought during the Holocaust, and the present-day destruction of cultural artifacts amid Middle East conflicts.
Phoenix Art Museum
April 11 through October 18
This exhibition, which was subtitled “Unique Creative Objects from the Center for Creative Photography,” featured works culled from “the entire history of the photographic medium, from the 1840s to the present day.” Meant to challenge the digital age misconception that photographs can be infinitely reproduced, the exhibition reminded viewers that photographic processes such a daguerreotypes, tintypes, and Polaroid prints produce only a sole, entirely unique object. For some, the exhibition was a thoughtful introduction to the rich history of photography before the advent of selfies and Instagram. It included works by iconic international artists such as Andy Warhol as well as works by local artists including Carol Panaro-Smith and James Hajicek plus David Emitt Adams – whose photographs on objects found in the Sonoran desert were also part of the 2015 Arizona Biennial exhibition at Tucson Museum of Art.
“Maybe Tomorrow, Darling”
July 17 through August 15
Community artists joined ASU alumni and graduate students for a group exhibition that used “the visual, conceptual, and material language of the office place” to explore the relationships between being and doing, art and life, and more. Curated by interdisciplinary artist Kara Roschi, the chief curator for an enterprise called Curator Engine that works to connect artists with art buyers, it featured works by Veronica Aponte, Shiloh Ashley, Peter Bugg, Travis Ivey, Willow Paule, Courtney Richter, Shabab Sagheb, Kade Twist, Denise Yaghmourian, Steve Weiss, and Leslie Barton – as well as Practical Art artisans and Roschi. Those exploring the exhibition encountered text on the perils of excessive sitting placed next to a giant red ball, a “Happy Birthday” banner hung above un-inflated balloons seemingly frozen in time and space, a wall covered in overlapping yellow Post-It notes reading “Don’t Cry,” and a swarm of copper-colored computer mice huddled on the floor.
“Miguel Angel Rios: Landlocked”
ASU Art Museum
September 12 through December 26
Works by Miguel Angel Rios explore “issues of power, apathy, and violence” through innovative social and political narratives. The exhibition presents viewers with a comprehensive look at the artist’s unique practice through his research materials, photographs, works on paper, storyboards, production ephemera, and videos documenting the creation of his works. It includes works in several media, including four new video works commissioned by the ASU Art Museum, and is part of the “Contact Zones” exhibition series addressing “contemporary migration and its intricate uncertainties within border culture, destiny and contested histories.” ASU Art Museum curator Julio Cesar Morales describes its Rios-commissioned works as “very much site-specific and grounded in a new approach to land art.” ASU also participated this year in a Postcommodity art collective installation called Repellent Fence, and in Ana Teresa Fernandez painting a portion of the U.S./Mexico border fence blue.
“Green and Gray”
The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts
October 2, 2015 through January 2, 2016
This exhibition exploring “the world between the natural landscape and the built environment” considers ways natural and built settings “merge, converge, and/or conflict.” Featured artists include Carol Alleman, Susan Beiner, Peter Bugg, Christine Cassano, Angela Cazel-Jahn, Candace Eisenfeld, Steve Gompf, Preston Graves, Jonathan Howard, Mohammed Reza Javaheri, Karen Jilly, Catherine Nash, and Ellen Wagener. Most impressive are large-scale installations by Cassano and Cazel-Jahn. Cassano fleshed out several ideas prevalent in her prior body of work, which explores the intersection of biology and technology in the context of her own health history, taking her work to a whole new level of integration and sophistication. Cazel-Jahn’s piece, comprising a frame of thick wooden posts hung with strands of tiny metal spheres, allowed viewers to walk through from one side to the other – where careful observers encountered delicate air plants clinging to a lone post bathed in light from an adjacent wall of windows.
Shemer Art Center
October 22 through November 19
Juror Hilary Harp, an associate professor of sculpture for ASU’s School of Art, selected 19 works reflecting diverse approaches to sculptural materials and innovative art practices. Featured artists included Mackenzie Barnes, Cherie Buck-Hutchinson, Kevin Caron, Jeff Falk, Kim Glusic, Rachel Goodwin, Ivy Guild, Meliza Meraz, Lily Montgomery, Robbie O’Carroll, Seth Trent, Zachary Valent, Joan Waters, and Chase Young. The exhibition included works in wood, metal, neon, and additional materials – effectively encompassing a broad range of artistic visions and techniques. Notable works included Kim Glusic’s Forever Young, a woman’s torso formed by bronze and steel letters of the English alphabet, and a trio of small pieces by Zachary Valent that showed his facility for using different materials to create varied aesthetics, thus reflecting his versatility as an artist.
Lisa Sette Gallery
November 7, 2015 through January 2, 2016
The best of British artist Bruce Munro’s four installations in metro Phoenix this season, by virtue of its aesthetic and conceptual clarity, the exhibition named simply for the artist is his first for an America gallery. Sette’s modernist-space, wrapped in a fabric scrim that glows with soft backlighting, is the perfect setting for the pieces shown here – which marry the artist’s passion for literature, technology, and the vast expanse of wilderness. Featured works include Restless Fakir, an incandescent bed of nails created with metal frame, glass, wood, optical fibre, and light; Eden Blooms, a trio of suspended orbs conjuring floral blossoms, created with optical fibre, steel, acrylic, sintered nylon, and light source; and Ferryman’s Crossing II, comprising a parable of Siddhartha translated into morse code using mirror, light, and animation.
“Somewhere Between Black & White”
ASU’s Harry Wood Gallery
November 16 through December 4
This exhibition, which sought to define textiles as more than a type of cloth or woven fabric, was presented by an ASU club called the Fiber Arts Network. It featured works by more than 23 artists, including several national artists, who explored textiles “through materiality, imagery, and functionality.” Notable works included Cuz the Boyz ‘N the Hood are Always Hard by husband-and-wife artists Madison and Matthew Creech, a 2015 quilt created with inkjet on cotton that was suspended from the ceiling using several gold-colored metal chains. The exhibition was juried by Erika Lynne Hanson, assistant professor of fibers and socially engaged practice at ASU, and ASU MFA fibers candidate Molly Kroehn.
Roosevelt Row Shipping Container Gallery
November 20 through December 13
Informed by the evolving relationship with her mother, artist Heather Couch created an installation that “explores the aesthetics of failure and the moments of stillness that hover just before destruction.” The installation includes clay objects marked by deliberate overworking and weak connections meant to reveal faults in the ceramic process, as well as structures “bound by an ephemeral tenuousness” despite being grounded in “the allusion of safety and balance.” Couch uses materials, including clumped wool and pinched clay, that retain the form into which they’ve been worked even as they remain vulnerable to catalysts that could change or destroy them. The installation was curated by Brittany Corrales, who holds a masters degree in art history from ASU and served as a curatorial assistant at the ASU Art Museum, as part of the emerging curator initiative of the Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art. (Editor's note: Corrales contributes to New Times.)
“Place Out of Time”
December 4 through December 18
Sculptural works by Phoenix artists Jayme Blue and Constance McBride placed in several spaces inside the Icehouse prompted reflection on the nature of decay – both of the human mind and body, but also individual buildings and even entire communities in the wake of new developments. Both reinforce the ongoing onslaught of changes, many beyond our control, but invite viewers to consider ways their own reactions to the inevitable can alter their interior landscape and external environment. McBride’s installation, which features her ceramic busts and torsos of bodies in decay and spaces made hollow by time, also includes an audio recording of her mother’s soft voice as she sings. McBride’s work has been deeply informed by helping her mother through the winding journey of Alzheimer’s disease – and it’s particularly moving set in the context of this building, with its own crumbling bits and pieces that signal the loss of so much Phoenix history all around it.