Visual Arts


In Valley art circles, "Lisa Sette, Lisa Sette, Lisa Sette" is a mantra intoned by young artists anxious for a chance at the nirvana of showing at her gallery. Unlike her high-profile Scottsdale neighbors, where art means Southwestern glitz and glamour, Sette consistently shows serious, and, at least for the Phoenix area, groundbreaking art. So when a call for entries for the Lisa Sette Gallery's first juried exhibition went out a few months ago, more than 85 artists jumped at the opportunity to exhibit at what many art insiders consider to be the Valley's most important gallery. The exhibition is now up, and, as a whole, the paintings in it are undistinguished. But within the respected and rarefied atmosphere of the Sette Gallery, the mostly average figurative works by five emerging artists take on a semblance of vitality and significance. A sympathetic environment at the gallery gives the juried exhibition the illusion of being a more important and successful show than it is.

In fact, the juried exhibition at the Sette says more about the gallery's skill at marketing and presenting art than it does about emerging styles or new and exciting faces on the Phoenix art scene. In this exhibition, the art is secondary. It's the gallery, the staff and Lisa Sette herself that are the show.

Located on Marshall Way, right smack in the middle of Gallery Row, the Sette Gallery does everything right--especially if your definition of "right" is the traditional, New York concept of a gallery.

What makes the Sette Gallery so successful? Partly because Lisa Sette shows the right kind of artists. The gallery is only five years old, but it already has an enviable track record. Since the gallery's inception, Sette has shown the work of William Wegman, a New York artist famous for photographs of his dogs Man Ray and Fay Ray. She's shown James Turrell, a world-renowned conceptual and environmental artist who is now working on a mammoth crater project in northern Arizona. And she recently exhibited the works of Luis Jimenez, a painter and sculptor included in this year's Whitney Museum Biennial.

Sette, however, doesn't just show big names from New York. Her stable of regularly exhibiting artists includes a large number of artists from Arizona or with Arizona ties. Mark Klett, a respected photographer who teaches at Arizona State University, shows there, as does Kevin Berry, a young sculptor noted for his large bronzes.

Impressive exhibitions, though, aren't all Sette has going for her. She is also the consummate gallery owner, the perfect balance of no-nonsense and sophistication. Her short, dark hair is practical yet stylish, and her signature black dresses combine Puritan severity with art-world chic. Plain-spoken and humorous, she can curse with the best of them. But she never speaks too plainly or tells too much. She gossips, but only when she knows it's to her advantage. At heart, she's a savvy businesswoman who knows that when she's presenting herself, she's presenting her gallery.

And in her gallery, Sette knows how to make art look good. When you walk into the Sette Gallery, everything whispers restraint and tact. The floor is bleached wood, practical yet unassuming. The walls are a softly inviting white, and the ceiling is too high to notice. In fact, after a moment, everything at the gallery quietly recedes, and the art on display silently slips to the forefront. As you walk around the rectangular main space, it's easy to think that the art is all you're seeing.

It's not. The walls, the floor and the ceiling are still there, gently wafting the room with discreet good taste. And Sette and the staff are there, too. Every employee at the Sette Gallery, in particular Sette's assistant Peter Wirmusky, is a master of that delicate balance between cordiality and reserve. After a brief initial greeting, they retire to the gallery's back rooms and leave you to ponder the profundities of art on your own. But ask a question and they're there, ready and willing to answer, without a hint of snobbishness or reproach. Viewing art here is like entering the world of the privileged, in which every need is anticipated and every want fulfilled.

It's also like entering a world where you're subtly but constantly being manipulated to a desired response. Sette and her gallery want you to perceive her art--her merchandise--in a certain way. She is not only selling art, she is selling taste, sophistication and elitism. She's selling an image.

The Sette isn't the first gallery, of course, to effectively exploit presentation. Nor is the linkage of merchandise and presentation a new concept. Every store from K mart to Neiman-Marcus sells an image. It's just part of business.

But the relationship of marketing and presentation to art, and to our perception of art's value, has become a hot topic in the last several years. Artists, museums, and gallery owners have generally considered themselves above crass commercialism, and they've always wanted to see their products as pure vessels of culture, somehow outside of and above the realms of mere merchandise.

But art, ultimately, is an elite consumer product. And a new wave of artists like Louise Lawler and Fred Wilson, through photographs and installations, is exploring how lighting, furniture, labeling and location affect our perception of the value and quality of that product. Lawler's photographs, for example, show art within the larger environment of collectors' homes, surrounded by the usual stunning array of antiques and objets d'art. In the process, she emphasizes the role of art as a decorative commodity, another piece of furniture for the very rich. And African-American artist Wilson creates minimuseums with primitive religious artifacts and archaeological relics to show how, in that sanitized environment, they become just more beautiful objects, devoid of any spiritual or historical connection.

In most cases a respectable gallery offers a quality product. A gallery like Sette can't get a reputation without delivering the goods. But occasionally, a good gallery can make art look better than it is, just by offering polite service and impeccable presentation. That's definitely the case with Sette's juried exhibition.

Sure, a couple of the pieces in the show rise above the average. "Half King/Half Queen," Sandra Sher Goldman's large pastel of two joined figures, confidently takes on the whole Western-male art tradition of rendering the female nude. Goldman comes out of the brawl looking like a feminist de Kooning. And a smallish oil by Joanne Kerrihard, "There is No Landscape #2," is a delicate and intriguing image of a large hand letting dismembered heads gently float down into a never-ending space. It has the magical charm of an early Chagall, where fantasy and reality coexist in ever-shifting tension.

For the most part, though, the paintings in the juried exhibition take on more than they can handle. They come out the worse for it. Joel Coplin's three large paintings of multiple figures in quasisignificant settings come off as overbloated tableaux. In "The King Drinks," for example, there's a policeman with a gun, a woman spanking a child, a toddler reaching up to touch a TV, another woman slapping the cop, a well-dressed man playing poker, a baby sleeping on the floor and a dog sheepishly sniffing around. The whole awkward scene adds up to a mishmash of symbols and meanings that the painting simply isn't profound enough to support.

Most of the other works suffer from the same greedy use of symbols. Everything looks like it should mean more than it does. And in the end, you feel cheated for your investment of energy in something with such a limited return.

That the juried exhibition isn't better than it is doesn't really reflect poorly on Sette. Sette and Wirmusky selected what was best from the available entries. And to be honest, these paintings aren't terrible. Most of them show incredible technical proficiency. But that's just not enough to make them great in their own right.

If you can overlook what's in the paintings, however, and see them as simply colorful objects on the wall, the whole show looks pretty spectacular. Just by hanging on the walls of Sette Gallery, these paintings gain cachet and validity. They take on the patina of fine art.

Art at the Sette Gallery always looks destined for success. But take the majority of the paintings in the juried exhibition outside this altar to art, and they're likely to look like common grains of sand. On these walls, though, they end up casting a gleam of iridescence. It's too bad they're not worthy of the attention. It's the Sette Gallery itself that's the real gem of this show.

"Paintings and Drawings: A Juried Exhibition for Arizona Artists," continues through Saturday, August 17, at Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale.

Her signature black dresses combine Puritan severity with art-world chic.

The walls, the floor and the ceiling gently waft the room with discreet good taste.

Just by hanging on the walls of Sette Gallery, these paintings gain cachet and validity. They take on the patina of fine art.