Visual Arts

Mother of All Shows

Edward Dominguez's studio door was wide open. He was waiting for Chinese food, and had only just begun to survey his previous night's work, large oil paints of his visions of Phoenix's fifth tallest building, the Viad Tower.

I called the former architect turned painter from the curb in front of a brick duplex on North Fifth Avenue. His gallery, Cob4lt Blu3, is one of 61 venues listed on this year's Art Detour, the annual art hajj to downtown galleries and artists' studios.

Could we talk? Yes. When? How 'bout Friday, he suggested.

"How about now? I'm sitting in the maroon car outside."

He peered out the doorway phone pressed to his ear and then waved. It was a dirty trick I'd played, but he didn't seem to mind as he invited me in.

Gauging the moods of artists as they prepare for Art Detour, now in its 15th year, is a sketchy endeavor and one that can require a certain measure of cruelty. But this weekend you're encouraged to commit a similar sin by invading the private spaces of our city's creative types. After all, 2003 is likely to mark a fundamental shift in arts in Phoenix. This year might well be remembered as the one in which "overnight success" came to the downtown Phoenix arts scene.

Bordered by radiator shops and transient motels and Rodriguez's boxing shop, five studios arguably form the spiritual vortex of that scene at the nexus of Grand Avenue, 15th Avenue and Roosevelt Street. There, you'll find 3Carpileup, Buckaroo Parish, the Perihelion Gallery, Moore's Weird Garden studio, and the Bikini Lounge tiki bar.

"Somebody joked that it's like the Scottsdale art walk, except you need a tetanus shot," says south-of-McDowell clay artist Halldor Hjalmarson, a board member of the nonprofit Artlink, which organizes the event. Only the joke doesn't really work any longer Detour's boundaries stretch too far and wide, and the artists go from edgy to free-spirited. Relative newcomer Edward Dominguez prefers the latter description. "The day of the show," he says of his experience with Artlink's other successful downtown venture, First Friday, "this place is thrilling."

As the event grows and seems to be nearing a sort of critical mass, however, Art Detour founder Beatrice Moore and others express some reservation about the success of her brain child. And who can blame her for being suspicious? More muscular arts communities have been displaced by real estate speculation or dismantled by civic disregard.

Just last year, however, the city did the Roosevelt Row galleries an unintended favor. "Proposing to put [a new football] stadium on top of us helped unify us," Kimber Lanning, the founder of Modified Arts gallery, says of the convoy of indie galleries east of Central. "A lot of us were moving along to our own beat. But as soon as we had this common cause, we definitely pulled together. I think it's why the city is acknowledging us now because they could not quiet us. All of a sudden they're acting like they always wanted to be an art patron."

It is the catch-two-two of art success. Anxiety becomes yet another sure sign that something is indeed taking hold. Buzz makes a city rethink its urban renewal plans. It turns a worn row of storefront galleries and studios into "the next SoHo." It helps developers christen spanking-new apartments "artist lofts." Creativity gets praised and affordable living/work spaces are buried. More troubling, to Moore, is that attention can transform art aspirants into fame junkies.

"We have a lot of young artists that rent from us," Moore says. "They're interested in being famous. They want to sell their work. They're trying to be fashionable, and not necessarily doing work that is truly important to them."

Randy Slack, 31, co-partner with Sara Abbott of 3Carpileup, and a Moore tenant, admits that it's easy to get confused about your true vision. Often, he says, artists find some success for a certain motif or style and find it difficult to break that mold. "I've got that with the boobs before," he says, standing in front of Happy Wong Bikini With Goldfish, a large canvas of a cartoonishly big-breasted woman, a fish, and other bits of images painted in yellows and blues and hot pink. "People would come in and be shocked or pissed off or really like it. Then they would come next month and they'd ask, Where's the boobs?' Where's the porn?' this one guy used to say. And then I'd do porn again."

As Slack speaks, the sounds of a guitar and bass bleed through the walls; painter Steve Yazzie and a couple of pals rehearse Detour-inspired riffs at Yazzie's studio, Buckaroo Parish. "It's a circus," Slack says of Detour preparations.

While the big top goes up, of course, there's a greater source of background noise than a few gallery bands. With an assault on Iraq imminent, the timing could not be better or is that worse? for a work Kathleen Thomas will be showing at her downtown gallery Studio Lo Do on Jackson. The installation "Us and Them" was conceived by Valley artist Mel Roman, who died this past November of cancer. In the smallest of the gallery's rooms a still robust space blue tape marks where a pile of soil will go. On top of that mound a single candle will burn. Facing each other across the mound will stand two seven-foot-by-nine-foot mirrors. Soon to be etched on one mirror will be the word "Us"; on the other, "Them." A quote by Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and writer, runs on the walls perpendicular to the mirrors. Here, Thomas points to one wall, Levi's quote is in English and Hebrew. There, the same quote is in English and Arabic. It's an elegant, forceful and utterly graspable gesture, just one of many the Detour promises. And a reminder that art's detour always leads us back to our lives.