Visual Arts

ASU Art Museum's "Open For Business" Shines a Light on Creative Consumerism, But the Show's Complexities May Work Against It

It all began back in 1996, when Jeffrey Deitch of New York's Deitch Gallery mounted an exhibition called "Shopping." Never without his trademark pair of large, round eyeglasses, Deitch — who, by the way, recently became the director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art — hooked up 26 international artists with 26 SoHo businesses that, at the time, were quickly replacing funky art galleries, per the inevitable course of gentrification. The upshot was a veritable explosion of all forms of art about consumerism, consumption, and ownership displayed in trendy shop windows, boutiques, and restaurants, not to mention a hardware store, a Salvation Army outlet and a porn video store.

It was "Shopping" that inspired ASU Art Museum curator John Spiak's "Open for Business," an exhibition that runs through January 29 at the museum. According to New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, most of the work in Deitch's "Shopping" was "amusing or insightful," though even its most critical work didn't "have much staying power."

Pretty much the same can be said for "Open for Business," Spiak's less successful, latter-day version of mating creatives with commerce.

Until now, Spiak didn't feel the time was ripe to mount this type of show. But the economic nosedive of recent years spurred him to pair artists with Mill Avenue businesses in Tempe weathering the recessionary storm that has sunk so many others.

Unlike Deitch, Spiak hasn't included empty storefronts in his project, though they were offered to him. "[I thought,] why don't we do stuff in businesses that are still surviving this economy?" says Spiak. He's left empty storefronts to Scottsdale Public Art's "Creative Connect/IN FLUX," with whom ASUAM has partnered to produce a printed location guide for both projects. Unfortunately, the guide fails to describe or explain the projects involved, which will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads.

"The idea of this project," Spiak says, "is to connect humans to humans, not landlords to artists, who let them have the space, and then when that space leases, they get kicked out. This is a mutual agreement, a mutual collaboration and something that, hopefully, is mutually beneficial for this project and beyond."

To that end, Spiak invited 16 artists to cruise Mill Avenue with him and venture into shops that struck their fancies. Spiak says the only rule placed on the artists was that if one of them wanted to go into a business, all 16 had to go in, too, in order to foster a running dialogue. Artists then submitted proposals and Spiak contacted the artist-chosen businesses to sign them on to the project. Like any ongoing undertaking, there were glitches, including businesses going under before the exhibition opening or frequent changes in management that prevented a final hook-up.

The results of all this effort are on display in both ASUAM and in the businesses that are participating. More than just symbolic spit-swapping between art and retail business, some artists in "Open for Business" have done serious homework after letting their imaginations run amok — and it shows.

A number of pieces in the show are fairly complex and appear as if they'll survive long past their obvious origins. However, their very complexity could work against them, as far as the general public is concerned.

Case in point is Erin V. Sotak's intriguing Stowage from the Eternal Optimist, produced for Julian Wright's La Bocca Urban Pizzeria & Wine Bar. Sotak, who is interested in creating her own mythologies, has stuffed an 18th-century Chippendale repro cabinet with fresh lemons, which are displayed as though they were exotic objets d'art or some coveted treasure in a cabinet of curiosities owned by a wealthy Age of Enlightenment collector. Her lemons bring to mind the old mantra of optimistically making lemonade out of lemons, as well as their critical importance to 18th-century sailors in treating and preventing scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency — the biggest killer of sailors from the 1500s to early 1800s. In a cyclic fashion, sailors relate to "optimist dinghies," those tiny boats used to train children to sail. At La Bocca, there is a video installation with images that refer to Sotak's lemon mythology. In addition, if you order lemonade at La Bocca, it will be served in a glass with an image, designed by Sotak, on it depicting a dinghy going over a waterfall along with the word "optimist." But how many viewers are going to get even a fraction of Sotak's historical references?

Mary Lucking's whimsy-filled installation, titled Finnegan's Craic ("craic" is Gaelic for joke or fun), was inspired by Rúla Búla, an Irish pub on Mill. Irish pubs evoke Irish author James Joyce, whose incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness novel Finnegans Wake is considered one of the most difficult pieces of literature written in English. (Don't believe anyone who says they actually understand what's going on in this book.) Knowing that most people can't get through Finnegans Wake (which has more than one whiskey-soaked, Dublin pub scene in it), much less understand it, Lucking made a series of 64 coasters that ask patrons to imagine Joyce scribbling notes for his epic on her coasters. Each week, she doodles, sketches, or writes a key quote from the novel on the back of one of the coasters, one of which is displayed in the museum each week, with the rest being passed out at the bar — with all 64, you get a kind of abridged, CliffsNotes version of the book.

Jon Haddock, a habitué of head shops when he was growing up in the early '70s, came up with Zeitgeist for The Headquarters, a smoke/head shop on University and Ash. For the museum display, he gathered old memorabilia from his youth (talk about flashes from the past) and shot a large photo of the collection against a bedspread. For the shop, he honed in on the current popularity of '40s and '50s gangster and criminal figures in pop iconography, creating his own addition to the pantheon of punks past for a poster that's now selling in the bins at The Headquarters. Haddock's poster highlights 36-year-old Edgar Valdez Villareal, a.k.a. "La Barbie," a former Texas football hero turned vicious, upper-echelon Mexican drug lord just busted in August for drug running and murder in Mexico City. La Barbie seems to be the latest reincarnation of Jesus Malverde, a Mexican robber hanged in the 1920s but who's been elevated to folk sainthood in recent years by Sinaloan drug dealers.

Other "Open for Business" undertakings, however, are less engaging or thought-provoking, mainly because they are too predictably literal in their approaches to the businesses with which the artists were teamed. Cyndi Coon's Park Here is the perfect example of this flaw. The piece, inspired by Downtown Tempe Community (DTC), sets up a short contest questionnaire about parking in a downtown Tempe parking garage. Fill it out and you just might win a DTC gift certificate and one of the weekly drawings done by the artist in response to answers submitted. Not to be outdone, Marco Rosichelli, teamed with Buffalo Exchange, buys thrift-store clothing in Montana, where he's relocated. He then sends his finds to Spiak, who takes the clothes to Buffalo Exchange to sell after tagging them as part of Rosichelli's art project. If a piece sells, the artist gets more money to buy more clothes for exchange; rejected items end up on a clothes rack in the gallery space.

Jen Urso didn't seem to go much beyond the obvious in taking on a different form, created in conjunction with The Bicycle Cellar, an innovative co-op located next to the light-rail's transit center for bike commuters. There, customers can rent a bike or securely store theirs, use showers, and purchase locker space before taking light rail to work. Urso filmed the paths of 10 bikers, made a map of their routes and created a video based on her own ride from home to The Bicycle Cellar; at the Cellar itself, she's installed a big projected map of the 10 bike videos, with an interactive component that allows other riders to map their own routes.

And if I see one more Sheriff Joe Arpaio-related artwork, I'm going to chew my arm off. Mildly interesting for about 10 seconds, America's Toughest Jukebox by Chris Todd, made for the now-defunct Sucker Punch Sally's Diner, features Sheriff Joe (again) as a gravel-throated lounge singer. Choose a song for him by pressing one of the buttons on Todd's old-fashioned jukebox-cum-video screen, and Joe's animated doppelganger will croak his interpretation. Todd's effort would have been infinitely more enthralling had the subject of the piece been anyone other that Joe Arpaio, who's been a trite satirical punching bag long past his prime. If you're interested, the jukebox is now available to any business that actually might want to add noise pollution to their establishments.