Best Art Conversations 2019 | Crossfade Lab | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

CALA Alliance has been bringing art conversations out of traditional art space and into community venues, giving people with diverse backgrounds and interests new ways to spend time together inspired by mutual respect and the power of sharing stories. During a series of Crossfade Labs moderated by creative Josh Kun at Crescent Ballroom, community members have experienced facilitated conversations between artists working in multiple genres, and created their own conversations around issues including immigration, queer experience, and cultural appropriation. Together, Crossfade Lab participants are forging new, intersecting pathways for conversations, helping people envision fresh ways of creating, listening, and sharing both personal and collective stories, all with an eye to creating community action infused with love and justice.

Love it or hate it, John Randall Nelson's white jackrabbit standing 26 feet tall is a conversation-starter. It's also a playful marker for a part of Old Town Scottsdale once considered a thriving arts district, where bars and retail shops now far outnumber galleries. The metal sculpture calls to mind Lewis Carroll's fictional white rabbit and stories he penned about a girl named Alice. Where others fear a friendly wink at psychedelic drugs, we embrace the perfect symbol for a city wrestling with its own identity. Scottsdale may be perpetually falling through its own looking glass, but at least it has a monumental work of art to inspire greater imagination along the journey. Unlike the myriad horse sculptures placed around Old Town, One-Eyed Jack is a nod to the city's future rather than its past.

A bevy of large beaded creatures by Christy Puetz sit near the entrance to the children's section of Burton Barr Central Library, where a trio of Daniel Funkhouser's transparent trees in vibrant colors stand guard on another floor. They're just two of 10 artworks created for the latest iteration of this arts collaboration, which spans several cities. The temporary artworks are placed in public places, where people delight in stumbling across them. Kyllan Maney transformed exterior walls for a Tempe arts center using fractured spiral patterns drawn on maps. Steven Torres added whimsy to a Scottsdale neighborhood with a giant yellow steampunk-style seahorse. Mary Shindell brightened Glendale City Hall with several colorful acrylic cylinders wrapped with desert flora and fauna. All the installations reveal the talent in our midst, and highlight the role of art in creating vibrant communities.

Four rows of dirt planted with strawberries anchored this exhibition by Mexican-American artist Janet Diaz, who returned to her hometown of Salinas, California, to gather the materials used in this compelling art show. Gallery visitors smelled the dirt and felt the humidity of watered plants, as they might while working hot days in a California field. Diaz also used sound, video, and portraits of migrants who work the strawberry fields, making visible the many people at the heart of American life whose efforts go largely unnoticed. Her portraits of migrants were hung high on the gallery walls, so those who normally look down on them would gaze up to them instead. Here, the artist made palpable the rigors of working in the field, while prompting viewers to embrace the humanity of migrants.

Don't call it a glow-up — Daniel Funkhouser has been shining for years. An artist with a knack for crafting whimsical installations and androgynous self-portraits, Funkhouser is one of the Valley's most forward-thinking and prolific creators. While he creates in a large variety of mediums, one constant in his body of work is neon. Funkhouser knows how to paint with light. He's created (literally) brilliant neon pieces for the annual Chaos Theory group shows, pieces that are both inviting and menacing, shedding the kind of sultry noir neon glow you'd expect to see in a David Lynch film. Bright neon colors and tones give his photographs a garish, lurid energy — like they're snapshots from some alternate dimension where Kenny Scharf designed everything. When it comes to lighting up a room, nobody does it better than Funkhouser.

You may not see puffy Lisa Frank unicorn stickers as raw material for feminist art, but Malena Barnhart does. A prolific and thoughtful visual artist, Barnhart works in multiple mediums (including video art and performance pieces). But one of the most striking is one that most of us who grew up with bubble machines and Trapper Keepers know all too well: the wonderful world of stickers. Barnhart has amassed a large collection of stickers that she uses to create hilarious and unnerving pieces of art. She uses their cutesy, colorful appeal in a subversive way, cobbling massive amounts of them together to form bear traps, handcuffs, and other tools of restraints. She creates murals and banners full of stickers, highlighting their textures and playful shapes. Barnhart has taken material that is temporary and disposable by nature and used it to create pieces that linger in our memories long after the sticky backing on those pieces has worn off.

For philosophers like Walter Benjamin and The Situationists, the figure of the flâneur held a special allure. Flâneurs (French for "strollers") were the original urban explorers: idle 19th-century dandies who spent their time taking their sweet time along the streets of Paris. For many philosophers, these loitering strollers became symbols for engaging with cities in a more personal and creative way. Flâneurs see things that schmoes in cars never will. One benefit of being a flâneur in the Valley is stumbling on the work of James B. Hunt. A wildly inventive visual artist, Hunt enlivens our urban landscape with his stickers, show fliers, and poster art. Bicycling across town, the black-clad Hunt sometimes organizes scavenger hunts in which he hides his paintings in the city's nooks and crannies. While so many artists confine their work to galleries or coffee shop walls, Hunt lets his art out into the wild. Stumbling onto a Hunt piece is like crossing paths with a javelina or a coyote during an evening stroll — one of those rites of passages most Phoenicians eventually experience.

Imagine being charged with creating a mural for a space that's already home to one of James Turrell's famous skyspaces and a massive glass scrim wall by James Carpenter. Scottsdale Arts commissioned Janel Garza to do just that, and she nailed it. Garza created one of her characteristic geometric designs for a wall inside a courtyard near the entrance to Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, using colors that reflect not only the desert surroundings but also the monumental artworks nearby. Her landscape of shapes channels the beauty of the Sonoran Desert while elevating the role architecture plays in shaping individual and collective identities.

Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum is distinguished by its thoughtful, imaginative approach to showing works by local, national, and international artists. Its solo and group exhibitions often feature women artists and artists of color, bringing much-needed diversity to the art scene. We never tire of seeing the museum's El Mac mural depicting an immigrant from Guatemala holding a lovely long-stemmed rose. Expect to see not only traditional works of art here, but also murals painted on gallery walls, rows of mounted skate decks, and large-scale installations created with offbeat materials like plastic bags. Best of all, the museum routinely exhibits work by such local artists as Rachel Bess, Colin Chillag, Joe Willie Smith, Marilyn Szabo, and Fred Tieken. They even throw fabulous season openings where art, live music, and conversation converge to create a strong sense of community.

Don't make any plans for immediately after you visit the Musical Instrument Museum, because you'll want to spend the whole day there. With more than 7,000 instruments from 200-plus countries and territories, you'll be kicking yourself if you rush the experience. The Artist Gallery downstairs showcases instruments from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Maroon 5, and more, or you can become a rock star in your own right, jamming out on the guitar, a Native American communal drum, or a Peruvian harp in the interactive Experience Gallery. If you'd rather listen to the professionals, check out the concert calendar offering music from every genre.

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