Visual Arts

Hot Spot

When I first heard the title "But It's a Dry Heat," Tempe Center for the Arts' inaugural show, it was mid-August and I was automatically turned off. In my sweaty misery, I was in no mood to hear any excuses for summer's jerk behavior. But despite my surly outlook, I walked away from the show feeling pretty good because, overall, I enjoyed it.

The new center is a sleek and modern building housing two theaters and a 3,500-square-foot gallery. The center's swank lobby offers an impressive view of Tempe Town Lake. With the gallery's first show being a relative success, it's sure to become a pit stop for me on my art-seeking rounds.

Be sure to look down before you enter the gallery, because the show starts underfoot. Mary Shindell's untitled piece consists of graphite and ink drawings, digitally printed into floor decals and arranged to create a path from outside the entrance to the center of the gallery. Her usual meticulous style depicts sun-dried saguaro fruit. Shindell's fine drawing detail is always impressive; she notes every crevice and wrinkle of the withered plants. Shindell was wise to avoid using color because some of the shapes were looking a little vaginal (debuting the gallery with a path of pink poonanies may not be what the city of Tempe had in mind). Their resemblance to Georgia O'Keeffe paintings aside, the plants are pathetically parched and dead, making the experience a bit like walking through a dramatic and tragic wasteland, beautiful in its corpse-like state.

Bob Martin's oil paintings live on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Shindell's pieces. But that's not to say I didn't like them. Martin paints a series of portraits depicting people holding water bottles. The paintings are quaint and definitely have a folk art vibe. The artist uses broad strokes of bright simple colors to render the figures in a slapdash style. Admittedly, most of the works look juvenile. But Martin's artistic sensitivity really shines in Child With Bottle. In this work, a toddler clutches a water bottle as if it's a teddy bear. The child, eyes closed, is crouched in a room, alone, snuggling this plastic vessel of blue liquid. The subject matter paired with Martin's simplistic painting style are a perfect marriage. This work tugs the heartstrings big-time.

The best piece, by far, was Dan Collins' Mirage, an interactive video installation. A floor screen fills the space between two temporary walls. The dancing ripples of a pool of water are projected from the ceiling onto the floor. At first, I wasn't sure that the piece was interactive and I was a little bored. But, having seen installations like this before, I decided to shake my usual hesitation to touch art, and hoof it across the screen. Of course, that's when the whole piece came together. The path that my body weight had cut immediately changed the projection. Wherever I walked, the water receded to reveal the cracked dirt of a barren desert wasteland. Before long, I was playing around in the space — running, hopping, and standing still to see what happened. It was super-fun and Collins' message was loud and clear: Wherever humans tread, the water supply disappears.

The most disappointing piece was Muriel Magenta's video installation, Hot "AZ" Hell. It starts with a digital projection of a brick wall against the Phoenix skyline. Slowly, images appear on the bricks — mostly graffiti-style paintings of cacti, skulls, and desert flowers. Then, a big burning sun grows to fill the screen. All this happens to a soundtrack of crickets. That's it — the end. The inspiration is a mural getting slowly bleached out by our intense sun. The visual quality is one step above a PowerPoint presentation, the concept is trite, and the only redeeming quality is that the cricket sounds were soothing.

Aside from Magenta's work, the show was good, enjoyable, and squeaky-clean: what one would expect from a city-sponsored exhibition.