Visual Arts

Urban Evolution

In early October, the Paper Heart announced its impending demise, and the country's third-longest-running poetry slam folded after its longtime home, an independent coffee house in Mesa, went under. That same week, Phoenix City Council members approved a $900 million deal to build a mega-shopping district with condos, hotels and offices around Patriots Square Park.

There's no doubt that the landscape of Phoenix, and its arts scene, is changing. Where are we headed? In 10 years, will Phoenix be a haven for fine artists, or will the arts have been eclipsed by luxury housing and shopping centers? These are the types of questions addressed in "New American City: Artists Look Forward," a group exhibition featuring works by 23 local artists at ASU Art Museum. The collection is successful in provoking a dialogue about the future of the local art community, and it suggests our artisans are willing to venture beyond what's expected. However, the artists' predictions for Phoenix aren't always rosy.

Wellington Reiter's Flight City series paints a disturbing portrait of our future. One image depicts a man being scanned by a mind-reading device that looks like something out of a Ray Bradbury story. Scribbled notes inform us that in the future, brain scans will be standard practice to ensure airport safety. Shudder. In another piece, dozens of air traffic controllers focus not on plane routes, but on fingering potential terrorists whose pictures are displayed on a large screen at the front of the room. Reiter's engineering script (all caps) and choice of grid vellum mimics actual draft blueprints, creating the feeling that these aren't just pictures; they're propositions.

Considering what I went through just to get a tube of lipstick through Sky Harbor security on a recent trip to Florida, Reiter's vision isn't that far off.

Multimedia installations are growing in popularity as downtown Phoenix galleries like monOrchid and Lords of Art Town offer interactive First Fridays displays. But galleries are oft wary of including more than one interactive piece, both because of space restrictions and a fear of overwhelming the viewer. "New American City" curators Heather Lineberry and John Spiak took a risk by including several multimedia exhibits, from Kade Twist's intriguing poetry projector to Melissa McGurgan's tongue-in-cheek More or Less Campaign Phx 2006, an interactive display that allows visitors to cast "votes" for what we would like to see more or less of in Phoenix.

The risk pays off.

In Urban Garden, a collaborative video piece between Mayme Kratz and ASU graduate student Helen Raleigh, Kratz is shown planting a small backyard garden in a commercial area bordering train tracks. As I walk into the small room where the video clip is playing, the sound of my footsteps treading a walkway of loose gravel echoes in the dark. A bale of dried flowers emits a soft, powdery scent that evokes memories of my great aunt's home, which always sported wreaths of preserved wildflowers. Kratz's room is a total immersion experience, like the "sensory overload chambers" created by psychotherapists in the 1960s. Whether it's actually art is debatable. Then again, art purists balked at Picasso's cubist nudes and Pollock's splatter paintings before they were widely accepted and acclaimed by critics.

If anything, it proves that Phoenix-area artists are willing to blur the lines; to go beyond conventional techniques.

The evolution of local artists is best seen in Sue Chenoweth's large-scale mixed-media works. In From Our House to Yours, an elevated floor plan of Chenoweth's childhood home is scrawled in charcoal on a giant paper canvas. The lines are messy and freeform, as if done by a child's wavering hand. An upside-down coffee table floats lifelessly inside the entryway, while outside, trails of endless triangles march in carefully arranged rows. The piece is vibrant and alive, each turn of the charcoal lines carefully plotted and executed with precision to appear random.

Like ASU professor Henry Schoebel, whose obsession with paint and layers led him from creating finely detailed traditional still life to bold, graphic assemblages of squiggles and dots, Chenoweth is more concerned with idea and concept than form. Her work is not aesthetically pleasing. It's raw and unrefined; not the kind of piece I would want hanging on my wall. Yet it is the best example here of a local artist transcending the confines of conventional art to produce something exciting.

Not all Phoenix artists are embracing the changes. Randy Slack, co-founder of 3carpileup, throws a sucker punch at modern installation art with a beautiful wall-size painting of his grandparents' living room, which he re-created — tufted 1970s couches and all — in his studio after their deaths. A velvet portrait and an eerily realistic holographic Jesus hang on the shimmering gold-leafed walls of the painted room. For a moment I feel as if I am standing in Slack's familial home, immersing myself in familiar sights, sounds and smells. The faint odor of mothballs and old people wafts from a nearby table runner crocheted in hues of burnt orange and olive, placed on an old radio console blaring traditional Christmas tunes. It's a comforting piece.

Slack's installation captures the sense of history that so much of Phoenix lacks, with our proliferation of cookie-cutter housing developments and strip malls.

Ultimately, "New American City" left me feeling hopeful that our art scene will survive. In Phoenix, art is all around us: in Mayme Kratz's urban garden, in airports and lawn mowers and deserted parking lots. The arts community, like the city itself, ebbs and flows. But most important, it is evolving.

We can either join the current or be left behind in a tiny room with a moth-eaten sofa, an ugly velvet painting and a sense of history.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden