SMoCA's "Extended Collapse" Is a Deconstruction Disaster

"Extended Collapse," the striking second installation in Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's Architecture + Art series, is my kind of show. A big, moody commentary on how buildings are repurposed and sometimes forgotten, it considers some of my favorite questions about life in the desert: What used to be here? What would this part of town, or that part of town, look like if developers hadn't taken over?

I feel an instant kinship with anyone with a reverence for buildings and their design. So why was I so bored with Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo's exhibit? Why did I spend nearly two hours trying to find a sweet spot in this extravagant show?

The Seattle-based artists and architects have created an ambitious pair of gallery-size installations that combine film, interior design, and architecture in a wistful, slightly spooky re-creation of the United Artists movie theater that once lived in the space before famed Phoenix architect Will Bruder re-imagined it as SMoCA. In one gallery, the exterior of the former movie house is memorialized in "Welcome Fragment," a full-scale reproduction of a theater's exterior, complete with lighted marquee (with the word "CLOSED" spelled out in plastic letters) and a phantom ticket booth. The façade is encroached upon by a giant dental molding meant to indicate that something else — in this case, an art museum — is about to take its place.

Around the corner, the show's main installation depicts the bombed-out remains of a movie theater, its seats crumbling into shards of white plaster, its floors littered with discarded popcorn boxes and Styrofoam cups. A pair of movie screens show competing images: On one, faded footage depicts the death of a movie house with images of filmgoers running, in slo-mo, from a theater whose façade plugs a feature called "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." On the other screen, clips from old Westerns overlap with aerial views of Scottsdale housing developments and shots of dust-colored, stucco facades. This reel is overlaid with phantom buildings, done in ghostly, pixilated images of what might have been and what used to be.

For those of us who've grown up watching Scottsdale's boom or witnessing the transformation of buildings into newer uses, "Extended Collapse" offers an especially resonant concept. Its execution is stunning and quite impressive. But there are one too many elements at work here — the films; the ghostly images overlaid onto them; the size and scope of the installations — and it's this sensory overload that creates distance between the work and its viewer.

The only thing more disappointing than the coldness of this show is its accompanying literature, in which the artists answer the curator's lucid questions with affected, meandering responses. Just once, I'd like to read an artist's statement in which the artist doesn't come off like a pretentious windbag. (Full disclosure: I hate artists' statements. At the opening reception for a rather large group show I'm currently exhibiting in downtown Phoenix, an art collector took me aside to chastise me. "Why didn't you put up any artists' statements?" she demanded. "Because I read some of them," I replied.)

Besides the two installations, there are two large charcoal and acrylic renderings on display. I found myself walking in circles, convinced that I'd missed something. Certainly this wasn't the entire show — two framed pieces and a pair of big installations? In my search for more of "Extended Collapse," I stumbled upon the as-yet-uncompleted SMoCA Lounge, housed in the former Virginia Ullman Gallery and set to open next month. Its design, by Janice Leonard of AZ88 fame, features furniture and fixtures made from rugged wooden pallets, all painted bright red, and all placed and hanging from odd angles. In its current, half-finished state, the lounge looks like part of "Extended Collapse"; in fact, it's an ironic commentary on the exhibit itself, about how the transformation of space — in this case, a gallery that's becoming an arty hangout — can draw our attention with its beauty and purpose.