Has Phoenix Finally Arrived? Feel the Love

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These images sent a plain message: Come to Phoenix, and you get to wear cowboy boots all the time. You can have a cactus in your yard. There are wild animals here, but it's okay — they wear cotton-blend fashion accessories.

Not anymore. These days, local artists are receiving national attention with striking send-ups of stereotypical Western art. Painter Steven Yazzie has spoofed bandanna-wearing wildlife in a series of portraits of coyotes posing moodily on contemporary furniture, and his oil-on-canvas Asshole pokes fun at both the Scottsdale art scene and Arizona's Old West reputation. Randy Slack's paintings of peeling, run-down street signage document Phoenix before its latest face lift, while artists like Jason Hill and Laura Spalding present a more urban, more accurate depiction of the city, one that actually looks like what you'll find once you get here.

Hill relocated from Portland six years ago, arriving at what he calls "the end of Phoenix's ghost town phase," when downtown was still largely deserted. He remembers seeing the Financial Center at Central and Osborn for the first time; it "blew his mind." He remembers thinking, "Why are these beautifully designed offices on Central Avenue sitting empty, while generic office parks on the edge of town are filled to capacity?" Conversations Hill had with longtime residents only strengthened his suspicion that there was an unhealthy disconnect between Phoenicians and the city's urban core. His friends in Portland were begging him to come home.

Hill's unique, hand-painted photographs and prints reveal an urban landscape burning brightly from behind its own cattle-and-cowpokes mythology. His surreal, color-drenched views of midtown bowling alleys and space-age Sunnyslope banks telegraph a truer Phoenix to folks who think we're still a cow town. And his love affair with the Financial Center has brought us a series of acrylic-enhanced images that speak of a city established not on a tumbleweed-strewn desert plain, but on the cusp of the technological age. His art speaks of a city with a unique sense of place, a tranquil, organized urban environment that was standing tall back when all those postcards and cigarette ads wanted outsiders to believe we were a parched, sand-colored wasteland.

Artist Laura Spalding wasn't fooled by all the cowboy stuff in the first place. She came here from Chicago to go to ASU about a decade ago, and stayed to paint mundane fixtures of city life: power lines snaking through sunny suburban skies; stark traffic lights against a smoggy sunset. Like Hill's, hers is a more sincere picture of Phoenix, one that flies in the face of yesterday's cowboy claptrap.

"The idea behind these paintings was just to admit that we live here," Spalding says, "and not in some quaint old artist's notion of a desert landscape. If you stand in the middle of Phoenix, you're not going to see a cactus wren and a prickly pair. You're going to see streetlights and the tops of palm trees against an urban skyline. That's what Phoenix actually looks like."

These sincere snapshots of the city are helping to overhaul Phoenix's antiquated image. Greg Esser thinks so, anyway. He ought to know; Esser once ran the city's public arts program and, along with wife Cindy Dach, now owns several successful spots along what's known as Roosevelt Row, a former blighted area that's now a thriving block of mixed-use bungalows, home to artist studios, boutiques, and galleries. He and Dach are high on a list of Phoenix boosters who've been instrumental in resurrecting downtown.

"Instead of marketing our tourist assets, like golfing and sunny weather, we're acknowledging that people live here year-round," Esser says of the grassroots movement that's helped to haul Phoenix into the 21st century. "We're talking about our ability to grow things the community wants, rather than what visitors might spend tourism dollars on before going back home."

Georganne Bryant isn't worried. She thinks the "Leave Phoenix" part of her message will eventually always be trumped by the "Love Phoenix" part. She sees a new day dawning, one in which people come to Phoenix to play golf and go home only long enough to pack their belongings and move here. "It's a kind of energy — you can feel that something's happening here," she says. "A year from now, people will get here and see what we have going on," she says, "and they won't want to be anyplace else."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela