Visual Arts

Going Nowhere

I admit it. I hate change. I balked when our local co-op, Gentle Strength, moved to accommodate the light rail, and I was furious when expensive lofts began to dominate my once-affordable neighborhood. But I know that it isn't all bad. My beloved Gentle Strength ended up in a more favorable location, and the influx of upscale loft tenants will help fund a new arts center. "Phoenix: Land of Somewhere," a group exhibition at Modified Arts, takes a conceptual approach to understanding the city's changing landscape. While ASU's "New American City" presented multiple possibilities for metropolitan Phoenix's future, this show is singularly focused on our present state of instability. It reads like a political attack ad in which, sadly, the slandered opponent is our home.

The show was organized by Lara Taubman, the independent curator who recently stirred up controversy among the local Jewish population by including a pro-Palestinian work in the Heard Museum's "Holy Land" exhibition. Their contention was that the show was one-sided, representing an anti-Israel stance without properly allowing discussion of the opposing viewpoint. Similar arguments were waged against monOrchid's 2005 "A Warlike People," in which the bulk of artists represented painted America as the perpetrator of mass violence. (Taubman addressed the controversy in the latter show by including two public discussion sessions in which audiences could raise points on either side of the issue.)

It was a wise move, and one that might have saved "Land of Somewhere" from appearing overly tilted toward Taubman's personal views. Here, Phoenix is cast as the victim of tyrannous developers out to destroy what little remains of our city's character. The outlook presented is so bleak that artists might as well pack up their VW Beetles, break their leases and move before consumerism consumes them.

Take Carrie Marill's video installation, for example. Two home-movie-size videos are projected onto Modified's stark white interior walls, each containing similar thematic elements of blue sky, rocky landscape and a scraggly bush. It's isolated. Lonely. I'm left longing for Marill's bold, graphic contribution to "New American City": a pictorial legend of Phoenix landmarks including Guadalupe's mission-style church and the Ecology salvage yard tower. It expresses that though developers may prefer condos to aging cinemas, there's still interesting architecture to be found. Where is that sense of hope here? It's disheartening.

The rest of the exhibition continues to dash my hopes for our future. Leslie Barton and Steve Weiss' collaborative video sculpture Endless Lofts presents a 30-second looped clip of Phoenix's preferred new housing option, accompanied by the strains of Lionel Richie's schmaltzy "Endless Love." The rolling television cart is covered in chicken coop fencing and cardboard boxes that speak to the flimsy construction of the sites. Denis Gillingwater brings the viewer directly into the equation by pairing televised images of pitiful landscapes, new construction and dilapidated homes with an in-house camera. Apparently, not only is the city rotting at its core, but guess who's responsible? Just look in the installment's mirror.

The most promising piece is In Place, a site-specific installation by Jen Urso. An acrylic cylinder filled with white bakery string was placed on the center steps outside the Modified building. Urso draped the string in a circular pattern around the entirety of the faade (save for the entrance door), creating a giant artificial web in front of the barred glass and brick. The effect is stunning. It envelops the structure like a giant cocoon protecting the art inside from factors that caused the demise of other local arts venues: eminent domain, bankruptcy, modernization.

Several of the thin strands trailed inside the door to a tiny spiral-bound artist book depicting empty lots and rubble. Among the photos, I recognized a small patch of derelict land I pass often near the intersection of Priest Drive and Rio Salado Parkway. It's a forlorn spot where plastic bags and other highway flotsam choke the overgrown weeds. The book speaks volumes of the neglect much of Phoenix suffers. We may balk at the thought of endless lofts and chain coffee houses, but if this is the alternative, I'll choose the latte.

Unfortunately, the installation suffers from poor timing. On my first run past the building, I commented to my husband on owner Kimber Lanning's fervent Halloween spirit. And, after asking around, I'm not the only one who mistook Urso's vision for a holiday decoration.

Taubman sent 500 e-mail letters to design firms, architects and artists soliciting works for the exhibition. She received approximately 25 responses — an appallingly low percentage — from which seven artists were selected. Perhaps Taubman chose to exclude the more glowing portrayals of Phoenix because they didn't fit with her personal truth. Or maybe local artists are just mired in the negative aspects of our expansion. One thing seems certain. If this exhibition is indicative of our prospects, then Phoenix is going absolutely nowhere.