Visual Arts

Urban Cowpie

As a native SoCal girl with roots still sunk deep into Southern California and its crazed cultural scene, I was really looking forward to seeing "southwestNET: PHX/LA" at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Touted as a fresh look at urban life in Phoenix and Los Angeles, it was to feature work by two exceptional Phoenix artists as well as several emerging ones from L.A., a virtual art-making factory that consistently cranks out some pretty wondrous creative product.

But, much to my disappointment, "PHX/LA" is one of those déjà-vu-all-over-again experiences for anyone who even nominally keeps up with the Phoenix and Los Angeles art scene.

Co-curated by SMoCA's assistant curator Erin Kane and Max Presneill, director of Raid Projects, an alternative gallery in Los Angeles, "southwestNET: PHX/LA" is the fourth in a series of exhibitions ". . . conceived as a way to raise awareness of emerging and under-recognized artists and to further regional interaction." This particular show is supposed to center on the Southwest's "unique version of urbanism, from its ubiquitous postmodern architecture to the impact of suburban sprawl on the desert environment." So far, so good.

What "PHX/LA" turns out to be, however, is a dumping ground for work that's been seen recently in this town and feeble takeoffs on conceptual work from L.A. that was lethally boring the first go-around. Most glaringly, three of four of the pieces in "PHX/LA" by local painter Colin Chillag were just shown in a well-attended exhibition during January at Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix and could hardly be considered new material.

Not that I don't like Chillag's decadently slathered paintings, including a new one titled Phoenix, a gooily manipulated Phoenix cityscape in waning, smog-filtered light. I do. But when I trudge to a show at one of the higher-profile museums in town, I don't expect to see something I just saw in a local gallery a few months ago. (This is not the first time such a phenomenon has occurred at SMoCA. Several years ago, a SMoCA show contained most of the work Mayme Kratz had just displayed at an exhibition at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery. Let's at least try to wait a respectable amount of time, like at least a year or two, before resurrecting recently shown work from gratis gallery shows.)

This is not the only major flaw in "PHX/LA." Its underlying thesis is old, soggy and has, in major part, been broached before (and better, I might add) in ASU Art Museum's 1999 "Sig-Alert" show, as well as in ASUAM's hugely underrated "Sites Around the City: Arts and Environment," mounted in 2000, and more recently in Shemer Art Center's 2004 "Land: Unconventional Approaches to Landscape." And how come only two Phoenix artists were included in the show, when the remaining five are from L.A. (with one of those living and working in Connecticut)?

Additionally, much of the work illustrating the main theme of SMoCA's "PHX/LA" is not particularly original or insightful; it's painfully derivative of other artists who have done the same stuff before (and better, I again add).

Case in point is Jared Pankin's Natural, Natural History 3 (Eastside) (2002), an installation that is supposed to call to mind those old dioramas that are the staple of all natural history museums. Pankin's piece features a fake-fur stuffed fox among urban rubble, a statement about the respective encroachment of nature and urbanization. Alas, Pankin is only a poor man's Roxy Paine, a New York artist who creates similar, though edgier, vignettes from disquietingly lifelike reproductions he hand-molds and casts in epoxy and resin. Shirley Tse's color photographs of inflatable sculptures crafted from blue plastic pool covers and shot in desert landscape settings are suggestive of the work of any number of latter-day artists, though Tse's work is not far enough removed from reality to have much aesthetic punch. And if I see one more piece using kitschy, retro fabric to make upholstered sculptural installations, like Brian Cooper's Gratification Management (2004), a tufted upholstered "spill" topped with several overturned galvanized buckets, I'm going to impale myself on a carpet needle in protest.

I will admit there are two pieces in the show that made the trek to SMoCA marginally rewarding. One is Keith Sklar's wall-hogging painting Hi Noon (2004) (Sklar is the one from Connecticut). Though I can't be sure that I wasn't merely seduced by the sheer enormousness of Hi Noon's size, the painting is so upendingly kinetic, so stylistically schizo, that the viewer is forced to not only pay attention to it, but to try to analyze its stream-of-consciousness contents. Unless I was hallucinating, I think I saw, among other assorted visions, Olive Oyl, a saguaro eating or autofellating itself, then morphing into a balloon trick, Osama bin Laden, the dromedary from a Camel cigarette pack hightailing it from a lavishly ornate mosque dome, a crawling baby spilling milk, fried eggs, and an indescribable color and black-and-white montage of grids, teeth, Windstream trailer and clouds, all of which looks like a room-size Nancy Rubins sculpture launched into outer space.

The other piece of note is Steve Rodin's sculpture-and-sound piece Airforms (2004). Rodin himself lives in one of the "bubble houses" built in Pasadena; Litchfield Park, Arizona; and Falls Church, Virginia, beginning in 1941 by California modernist architect Wallace Neff as alternative wartime housing. The artist is clearly taken with Neff's beguiling concrete domes, many of which have been destroyed to make room for more traditional residences. They were constructed by spraying cement over a mesh-covered rubber ball that was deflated after the cement would dry. Rodin's mini-bubble forms are rigged with speakers that fill the museum gallery with the ethereal sound of air rushing through old wooden organ pipes, sound that vibrates through you like a tuning fork.

Moments of interest aside, if disappointment with SMoCA's "PHX/LA" offering could be empirically measured, mine would fill those buckets in Brian Cooper's one-riff Gratification Management and then some.