Visual Arts

Reality Bites

Urban art is defined by the city that it represents. In a glorified cow town like Kansas City, the boring neon art installation at the top of the Sulgrave Building hints at the town's sheltered nature. Works like Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, a portrait of the Madonna adorned with elephant dung and porn cutouts, paint Brooklyn as edgy, controversial. In "Concrete Jungle," a group exhibition of paintings and mixed-media art at the Paper Heart, gallery owner Scott Sanders has pulled together an artistic portrait of Phoenix that's disturbing, but accurate.

Take Adam Allred's mixed-media piece Barefoot and Patriotic, for example. A fat, balding man wearing a gas mask and a tight, white tank top perches on his front lawn, watering the concrete driveway where his trusty pickup is parked. The cascading stream from the hose drips down beneath the main image, where book illustrations of missile launcher instructions and injured soldiers peer through a thin veil of muddy brown. A pile of skulls caked with blood is the foundation of the painting.

It's a powerful piece.

The smoky pastel tones and thick impasto technique of the painting are reminiscent of local artist Colin Chillag's cityscapes, but Allred's message about Phoenix is far more insidious. We post American flags on our pink stucco houses like badges of honor at the same time we're becoming obese, wasting water and sending friends and relatives to die so that we can keep our redneck American dream. Yee-haw.

In The Crowning of St. Diana, artist Greg Pentkowski shows the beloved British royal with an upturned halo, common in medieval depictions of saints, and a crown of thorns in place of her usual tiara. She is flanked by ink portraits of Gandhi and Honest Abe, both riddled with bullet holes from a .270 Winchester. My initial reaction was recognition of the figures, followed by anger and then a quiet calm as Pentkowski's point drove home. Americans have idolized these historical figures to the point that they are infallible.

But they were just human.

Palm trees and power lines painted in unsettling shades of black, gray and orange dominate Colton Brock's urban scenes. The recognizable downtown streets and highways are weighted down by the brown cloud that hangs unmercifully in our summer sky. It was oppressively hot inside the gallery; just another reminder of the city's worst flaw. It's doubtful that the owner arranged this purposefully -- the culprit is more likely a high electric bill or faulty cooling system -- but as the moisture trickled down the small of my back, I longed for the shade of one of Brock's eerie palms.

There was no graffiti art present during my visit, an oversight that was noticeable given the venue's prominent spray-painted logo. According to Sanders, a tagging artist was scheduled to exhibit his works but had not shown up.

Perhaps he was out vandalizing train cars or condemned buildings.

If you're looking for a candy-coated vision of the majestic Superstition Mountains, bury your head in the sand of Scottsdale's fine art galleries. On the other hand, if you're willing to take a hard look at the downside of living in Phoenix proper, "Concrete Jungle" awaits. Be forewarned; the reality check left me feeling bleak, depressed and needing a vacation somewhere else. Anywhere else.

I hear Portland's nice this time of year.