Best Museum Exhibit 2021 | 'Elemental' | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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Tunnel vision marked much of the year, as massive misinformation campaigns, alternative realities, and social media algorithms magnified existing fissures in the country's political landscape. With "Elemental," the first U.S. mid-career survey of works by Teresita Fernandez, Phoenix Art Museum (in conjunction with Pérez Art Museum Miami) seemed to foreshadow the rapid rise of literal and metaphorical wildfires, including public health dangers amplified by hubris and denial. Through materials, forms, and ideas referencing colonial histories and present-day exploitations, Fernandez gave viewers the chance to consider the complex nature of the American landscape, and how their own words and actions are altering that terrain. Her Fire (United States of the Americas) 2 installation, comprising the 50 states made with charcoal, was the perfect visual for a year when it felt like everything familiar was simply burning to the ground. The exhibit challenged viewers to forgo tunnel vision for a wider view of the world, even if the view wasn't always pretty.

Mural artists were busy this year, bringing art to public spaces even as many traditional art venues took a pandemic pause. One mural, painted in downtown Phoenix, stood high above the rest — and not just literally. Miles MacGregor ("El Mac") and Thomas "Breeze" Marcus collaborated to create a 45-foot-high portrait of a young woman from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa community. She appears to be gazing over the city built on the ancestral homeland of her people. More than a work of art, it's a new monument to the history of the region and the Indigenous people who continue to call this land home. Elsewhere around the county, old monuments rooted in white supremacy have been coming down. Here in Phoenix, this new monument was raised up, paying homage to Indigenous peoples of the past, present, and future.

After a massive yellow mural reading "Black Lives Matter" was painted on a prominent street in Washington, D.C., Gizette Knight hoped to install a street mural with that same theme in downtown Phoenix. When she couldn't get city approval, Knight did what activists do best: She found another way to make the message heard. Knight coordinated a Black Lives Matter mural project that included numerous Black History Matters murals painted by various artists around Phoenix. The murals, hosted by places like The Nash and Carly's Bistro in Roosevelt Row, featured the faces of renowned Black changemakers like Shirley Chisholm, Huey P. Newton, and Harriet Tubman — as well as some who aren't as well known. Best of all, the project included a billboard along Grand Avenue, assuring that the Black History Matters message would be widely seen in our urban landscape.

Arizona-based artists M. Jenea Sanchez and Gabriela Muñoz have been collaborating for more than five years, most recently working with a women's self-help collective along the border between Arizona and Mexico. This year, that collaboration leveled up with an exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art titled "Division of Labor: Women Shifting a Transnational Gaze." The museum had invited Sanchez and Muñoz to co-curate an exhibition of works drawn from its own collection. Instead, the artists created an exhibition featuring not only works from the collection, but also 10 contemporary Latinx artists working in the borderlands. The collaboration went beyond two artists teaming up; it became a model for shared power and horizontal leadership within art museums and communities.

Between pandemic shutdowns and the growing footprint of big developers, it's been a tough year for creative venues. Undaunted by the challenges, Palabras Bilingual Bookstore founder Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña launched a new creative hub called Nurture House just a few blocks west of the main drag in Roosevelt Row. It's home to Wasted Ink Zine Distro, Abalone Mountain Press, Pachanga Press, and Por Vida Bakery, which means you can snag some great reading material and support local publishers while you're enjoying tasty baked treats. Nurture House has front and central courtyards, which make great outdoor gathering spaces, and the bookstore has a cozy room with a big purple couch where you can dive into books about arts and culture surrounded by walls filled with paintings by Jeff Slim. It's also a community gathering space for book club and open mic nights, where diversity is celebrated and authentic conversation, self-expression, and listening are truly nurtured.

Mike Miskowski has made his political disdain known for more than five years by hanging it from bridges and overpasses and off-ramps all over town. He's the guy behind the large-scale anti-Donald-Trump signage that decorated local freeways in 2016 and beyond. "Trump is Putin's Bitch!" was Miskowski's first greatest hit; other popular signs included "Trump Is A Whiny Bitch" and "Most Corrupt President Ever." Before that, "Trump Locks Babies In Cages" got a lot of attention, as did "Your Vote Is Your Weapon." Miskowski, whose signs are all handmade, has lately pointed his outrage at the GOP and its crazy behavior. His motto? "Any political message I can get in under seven feet of space is worth that space."

Grand Avenue has an eclectic mix of art experiences on First Fridays, from tried-and-true favorites like printing on one of the presses inside the Hazel and Violet letterpress shop to pop-ups that blend food with visual culture at Bones Bodega. Beyond gallery exhibits that show works by dozens of artists, you'll find offbeat street art, open artist studios, pop-up artisan markets, and live painting — all of which take the First Friday experience on this funky diagonal strip near downtown to a whole new level. Best of all, there's an authentic community vibe that's evident as people pause to take selfies, sip tea at outdoor bistro tables, talk about their favorite art sightings, and just marvel together at the wonder of it all.

It's been nearly three decades since Massachusetts-based artists Mags Harries and Lajos Heder created a series of vessels for Phoenix Public Art that were installed along an SR 51 bicycle trail from Brill Street to Ocotillo Road. Maligned by some, and vandalized with graffiti through the years, the renovated artworks that range from 2 to 15 feet tall still stand as a tribute to the power of public art and the histories the artists sought to reflect in these works. They conceived the vessels, which have surfaces painted by Arizona artists, after talking with community members near the installation sites — and noting the prevalence of vases, pots, and baskets in their homes. Today, the pots continue to reflect the diversity of nearby and surrounding neighborhoods, and the many cultures that have shaped the natural and urban landscape, even as they remind the community of the power art holds to shape ideas.

The war of words was in full swing this year as partisans filled public and online spaces with opinions about immigration, voting, public health, and more. That war was poignantly addressed in "Text as Image," an outdoor exhibition of text-based art created as part of ASU Art Museum's "Pilot Projects" series. The temporary public artworks included Jacob Meders' Warbird Press vending machine with prints addressing colonialism and Indigenous lands, Kristin Bauer's Dia/Chronic banner confronting propaganda and white supremacy, Hugh Hayden's Pillory sculpture referencing police barricades and medieval stocks, and Iván Argote's Tiernos, We, Somos and Strong installation of concrete chairs addressing human interactions during polarized times. It was the perfect collection of temporary public artwork for the times, conveying not only the perils of the present moment but the possibilities for a less fractious future.

Artists Alexandra Bowers and Pete Deise transformed an empty space at Park Central for their pop-up exhibit "The Four Seasons," providing viewers with an intimate way to view their work outside of traditional gallery settings. Large billows of fabric suggested geographic features, reinforcing the ways these artists' works reflect natural elements such as wind and water. Both artists played with elements of scale and movement, bringing life to an otherwise barren space. Their pop-up exhibit reinforced the power of art to transform both interior and exterior spaces, and signaled the potential of other urban environments to serve as places to encounter and experience art.

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