Fear Factor

As Phoenix incubates an art scene, one thing the players -- and the wanna-bes -- are learning is that creativity breeds contempt. And nowhere is that more evident than on East Roosevelt Street.

Recently, The Spike showcased the artistry -- really, the pageantry -- of the not-so-nice goings-on at monOrchid and Holga's, where "art-trepreneur" Wayne Rainey is the target of an anonymous hate campaign ("Artistic Discord," September 4).

Now another artsy type, sculptor Robert Miley, is taking a hit -- and this time at least a few of his detractors are willing to be named. Seems the arts community has its collective panties in a wad over a piece of public art soon to be erected in a patch of a park at the corner of Central and Roosevelt.

This piece of land may not seem so special at the moment, but at the rate Roosevelt Row is expanding, soon the street will rival downtown Scottsdale for its galleries-per-inch. Nightlife can't be far behind. And in the coming years, that park along Central will be the site of a light-rail stop. So this spot is prime territory, the perfect place, in The Spike's opinion, to put some really cool and edgy public art, which the city of Phoenix is (amazingly) totally capable of doing.

In fact, the city's public art department had every intention of doing just that, when the idea was scrapped in the backlash of the Squaw Peak pot brouhaha in the early '90s.

Instead, the thousands of people who come downtown for First Friday will likely see a 24-foot sculpture of a human form, arms outreached, made of melted guns and other "weapons of violence." Lucky lookers will be able to see the outline of the "weapons of violence" at the base of the sculpture.

Now, The Spike is just as sympathetic as the next guy, but terms like "weapons of violence" are just nauseating -- and the fear is that the sculpture will be, too. The Spike is not alone in this fear. The consensus among a handful of artists and public art professionals is that in bringing us Release the Fear, Miley may have his heart in the right place (he has done a great deal of work in local schools, using art to teach kids about violence), but his sculpture has no place at a busy Phoenix intersection.

Privately, some local artists are holding their noses and calling the sculpture "garish."

"He's not a very good artist," one critic says, putting it succinctly, if nastily. A few are quite vocal in their disgust with the process that will saddle Phoenix with the PC piece.

So how did this guy happen to score such prime real estate? The public art gurus around here have done their best to keep Miley off the streets. For years, Miley has applied for Phoenix public art projects. For years, he's been rejected. Recently, he was turned down by the committee that's putting public art at light-rail stations around town.

Miley is apparently more popular with members of the city's Parks Board -- which approved the piece back in 1998. Many are grousing that it's really his close ties to soon-to-be Mayor Phil Gordon and City Council member Peggy Bilsten that pushed Miley through the process.

"I sure support him and think he's a wonderful artist," Bilsten tells The Spike.

Gordon adds, "I value the concept. It was very intriguing." Both demurred at further questioning, although Gordon says that public art needs to come from and be approved by many sources.

That's the kind of talk that drives public arts folks nuts, and it bugs The Spike, too. Doesn't Gordon remember the debate over the Squaw Peak pots, a decade ago, when locals raised a stink over the process by which Phoenix chooses public art -- a process that got national acclaim for producing some of the best public art in the world? The Spike recalls that even New Times ran photos of Scottsdale's hideous streetscapes (chosen by people with similar aesthetics to those on the Phoenix Parks Board) with the caption "Phoenix could be this ugly."

Current Phoenix public arts officials are mum. But Ted Decker, a longtime local arts advocate and former vice chair of the Phoenix Public Art Commission, says the decision to put Miley's sculpture up -- and keep it there, once the site was named a light-rail stop -- was "political" and "inappropriate." To put Miley's art next to the light-rail art undermines the process, Decker says, by which the Regional Arts Committee (which chose the artists who will do public art for the light-rail sites, and didn't choose Miley) made its decision.

Miley tells The Spike that there was in fact a debate over whether to move the sculpture, once the site was approved as a light-rail stop. The decision was made to keep it there. "That spot was given to us when no one else wanted it," he says.

Politics aside, some just plain don't like the sculpture. Ted Decker says there's nothing new or exciting about Miley's project. Apparently, gun melting is a real yawner to the arts community. "It's not groundbreaking at all."

Ted Troxel, an artist who lives near Central and Roosevelt, says the sculpture is "not really representative of our aesthetics. It just feels a little corporate, and, in a way, naive."

Miley says the sculpture perfectly reflects the area, where he's lived for more than 20 years. "This neighborhood has overcome all the [violence] and gone beyond," he says. "It saddens me in my heart," he adds, to hear how other artists view his work. But he says, "The major part of this project is to take away the mystery, take away the highbrow aspect of art."

There's no mystery, according to Miley's detractors, who say the artist has politicized the public art selection process for his own personal gain -- which translates to our loss.

The "horrific" design for the sculpture "cancels out the good intentions of his core project," one says.

Ultimately, Miley's good message might just be lost to bad art. The Spike just hopes no one comes to blows over it.

E-mail [email protected] or call 602-229-8451.

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