Commercial Art Is Keeping Phoenix Artists Afloat -- But At a High Cost

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It's often said in any arts community that "it is not the business of art to conform to conventional taste." But take a quick survey of artists who create commercial work alongside their personal work, and they'll tell you, it's actually great business.

When Angel, Slack, and Dauncey left Phoenix Art Group in 1995, they grabbed a studio in downtown Phoenix and formed 3CarPileUp, one of the most successful contemporary art collaborations in town.

Angel and Slack (Dauncey declined an interview request) agree that the work they created right after leaving was in direct response to the commercial work they were reproducing and, later, designing at Phoenix Art Group.

But though he did manage to make a name for himself in the Phoenix fine-arts scene, Angel never left commercial art.

Today, it takes almost five pseudonyms to support James Angel. He notes that there's a big gap between his personal work, which he signs with his own name, and the commercial art he continues to create under a variety of personas, which can be spotted (along with designs by Slack and Dauncey) in any given Pottery Barn store or big-name hotel lobby.

"I think we're now all used to bumping into our work on the walls of hotels [including Hyatts, Hiltons, MGMs, and Trumps] and and on coasters around the country," Angel says. "But there's a huge difference between something that is appealing and something that will hopefully evoke a response."

After checking out any 3CarPileUp show, Slack's annual Chaos Theory show at Legend City Studios, or the art the three now regularly rotate throughout the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale, anyone familiar with commercial art style can see they're still rebelling and still reacting to what was defined as successful in the commercial world.

Although Slack continues to create commercial pieces, he smiles when he says his personal work would never sell in the commercial world.

He builds his own massive canvases that rarely fit through residential doors and are nearly impossible to transport. (Lucky for him, Legend City has rolling garage doors.) His subject matter draws from pop culture — big-boobed, stein-slinging beer girls and larger-than-life tributes to The Bad News Bears. And his colors, often of the hot and neon variety, will never be found in Gucci's latest campaign.

Angel's work, though similarly rebellious, is more calculated. He creates modern sculptures almost too large to hang, landscapes that are intentionally blurred, and draws patterns and shapes with thick markers over images taken from Arizona Highways.

Now when he paints, he says, he mixes colors on magazine pages. For years, he collected these "unintentional paintings," which he included in 3CarPileUp's 10-year anniversary exhibition at monOrchid Gallery in downtown Phoenix.

Angel and Slack disagree on the educational value of Phoenix Art Group. Slack says he wishes he had listened to his high school art teacher, who told him not to join, and says he still feels conflicted about producing commercial work to support personal work. Angel says he looks at the entire time as a learning experience and an important step in his financial stability.

But they both continue to have a similar mission — to paint beyond the rules of "successful" artwork and to never sign anything (with their own names) that's meant to hang over a couch.

Hall was with Phoenix Art Group for about eight years — a long time for anyone in the building, he says. Today, when he's not helping friends out with construction gigs, he creates graphic designs and paintings for sale in popular local boutiques.

"Art is, and always has been, a business," says Hall. "Any artist or community member who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves."

Hall says his time at Phoenix Art Group changed his view on artwork and the artists who are often forced to create it.

"I don't call myself an artist anymore," he says. "There are too many artists in the world. Plus, I know my name is tainted because I worked for the 'commercial' side, according to some arts people," he says. "But in the end, you should create art because you want to and you should buy art because you like it."

Not long after he left Phoenix Art Group, Gronowski moved to Los Angeles and started Handpress International, which he describes as a "mini Phoenix Art Group."

He still paints under a variety of names and personas — one for landscapes, another for surrealism, another for modern, he says — but he's also still reserving time to make his own work.

Before jumping on a plane to Hong Kong to do an art gig for Disney, he says he refuses to believe his commercial involvement affects his personal work or his own work's value.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton