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The Best Things I Saw in Metro Phoenix in 2016

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It’s all too tempting, when looking back on 2016, to say good riddance. We lost Prince and Bowie. We got Trump. By all sane accounts, it has been a pretty terrible year. But I’d be remiss to write it off as such. Especially when I saw so many good things in metro Phoenix. In no particular order, these were the best.

This year, Barry Jenkins released one of the most visually compelling films I’ve ever seen. He wrote and directed Moonlight, inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. In an oceanic blue palette, it follows Chiron, a boy growing up with pressures to blend into a hyper-masculine Miami culture that he doesn’t quite fit into. At first, anyway. Told in three parts, the film gives us glimpses at a distinct life, a clear perspective, and how Chiron grows from an emotionally exposed child to a guarded adult, cocooned by gold grills and an obsessively maintained physique. It feels redundant to write, but in a tumultuous year when people have been emboldened to argue otherwise, perhaps it isn’t: Black lives — and narratives — matter.

Phoenix General
When GROWop boutique owners Josh Hahn and Kenny Barrett opened Phoenix General in midtown, we were giddy. The boutique, with its broad window displays and perfectly picky inventory, is a high-end counterpart to their Roosevelt Row shop, a community center complete with a garden. But when GROWop suddenly shuttered in October — yet another casualty in the gentrification of downtown’s arts district — the shop became all the more necessary. With its gallery space, Shortcut, and regular collaborative events with neighboring Framed Ewe, and an in-house label of basics like T-shirts and tunics, it’s the perfect place for retail therapy in a rapidly changing city.

El Mac in Mesa
International street artist El Mac was no stranger to the Valley this year. The painter grew up here, and found himself in high demand at Mesa Arts Center, whose contemporary art museum exhibited a selection of his work and commissioned a two-story mural. The latter portrays Karen Bracamonte in Mac’s signature swirling lines. Eyes downcast and hands arranged for prayer, she holds a single long-stem rose in desaturated red over a pregnant belly. It’s a Southwestern Madonna if we’ve ever seen one, with a halo, painted by a longtime Mac collaborator, around her head, and the bottom of the column unpainted to form an arch.

Phoenix Zine Fest
Phoenix’s DIY scene felt in flux during 2016 — what with the closure of Trunk Space and the uncertain future of Wasted Ink Zine Distro. Though both the community-centric venue and the zine shop and library have since reopened in new locations, there was perhaps no event that proved that the Valley’s indie spirit is alive, well, and flourishing quite like the inaugural PHX Zine Fest. Held at the Icehouse (a building with ups and downs all its own) by Charissa Lucille, Marna Kay, and Brodie Hubbard, attendees were greeted by an open-air Hopi drumming performance and then directed to a room full of local and national vendors including Four Chambers, Amazing Arizona Comics, and Fem Static hawking their stapled pamphlets, perfect-bound chapbooks, visual art, buttons, and photography. It’s just the beginning, and we can’t wait to see what they do next.

Yet again, Dennita Sewell has offered up an exciting reason to visit Phoenix Art Museum. This fall, she debuted “Emphatics,” a survey of avant-garde fashions from 1963 to 2013. All the show’s materials — from the Jean Paul Gaultier dresses and elaborate fashion show invitations — come from a shuttered Pittsburgh boutique for which the exhibition is named. What’s on view is part of a 400-piece collection the museum acquired from Karin Legato, who co-owned Emphatics with her late husband, James. Their unintentional archives are educational, impressive in scope, and, as each and every item embodies avant-garde, exciting to behold.

Read on for more of 2016's best.
Grant Street Open Studios
The more Arizona State University’s school of art is absorbed into the warehouse district, the richer Phoenix’s arts community gets. With Northlight and Step galleries as well as student studios, ASU’s Grant Street enclave has become a key stop in First and Third Friday outings. But during Art Detour, the complex shines. Master’s candidates open their studios, displaying finished and in-progress pieces, selling experimental works at deep discounts, and collaborating to craft take-aways like tintype portraits and 3-D body scans. It’s one of the few times when anyone can walk through the artist’s spaces and talk with them about their processes, goals, and upcoming shows. It’s intimate, informative, and our favorite place to find the Valley’s most promising creatives.

Pussy Riot
Ksenia Zhivago and Maria Alyokhina visited downtown’s Beth Hebrew Synagogue to discuss their work as members of Russian protest punk group Pussy Riot. Billed as “Art, Sex & Disobedience,” the talk centered on political art and how Alyokhina, and other members who weren’t at the panel discussion, coped with imprisonment and judgment for their radical actions, exposed bra straps and legs, and defiance of Vladimir Putin. Which naturally led to discussion of Donald Trump, then a mere presidential candidate who had allegedly traded compliments with Putin. While praising the fact that America actually has elections, Alyokhina said of Trump’s potential ascendance to Commander in Chief, “We recommend not to do it.”

“Chaos Theory”
Because it typically coincides with Phoenix Fashion Week, I don’t have the pleasure of attending Randy Slack’s annual, one-night-only survey of Phoenix’s arts landscape. Not the case this year, and what luck. “Chaos Theory 17” featured nearly 80 artists working in various media at Slack’s downtown Legend City Studios. Travis Ivey took in the city through a glittering collage, while Carrie Marill played with perspective in her three-dimensional High Low. And at the center of it all was Slack’s own # Myrtle, an carnival-esque installation featuring a flat incarnation of his VW van in front of a Grand Canyon backdrop in desert pinks and purples. Attendees posed, thumbs up, sticking their smiling faces out the van’s cut-out windows. Interactive art with a sense of humor? More, please.

FORM Arcosanti
As a person who hasn't had a Cheryl Strayed-style outdoorsy awakening and does not care for Skrillex, experiencing the third annual FORM Arcosanti as I did (in daylong segments that did not involve camping, thanks so much) was near perfect. The small, mindful arts festival was held at architect Paolo Soleri’s experimental community where artists still live and work. And unlike the manic pace of festivals like Coachella, this one is centered on contentment, stumbling on things like art by the Fortoul Brothers, Bill Callahan’s voice carrying under a flapping sage canopy, and a cliffside piano performance by Bing & Ruth surrounded by a crowd so quiet Soleri bells could be heard twisting in the breeze. That was revelation enough.

Protest Art
Phoenix artists look poised to create plenty of politically charged art in the coming four years, if 2016 was any indication. Angel Diaz painted a toppling Arpaio statue, the words “Dump Trump” spelled out in a background mountain formation. El Peezo resurfaced with a wheatpaste work titled Jabba the Drumpf, mashing up Jabba the Hut and Donald Trump with a nod to Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver. An anonymous Scottsdale artist used digital manipulation to mold Trump’s grotesque facial expressions into tumor-like tubers. These works can’t fix things, but they sure help make everything feel a little more bearable.

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