Phoenix: An Art Travel Diary
A Salty River
Phoenix doesn’t care about art. That’s the way I felt growing up there, and that’s the vibe I took with me when I left for Albuquerque in 2001. Even then, the city had more money than God but seemed to spend most of it on sprinkler systems and freeway plants. Art rarely happened, and when it did, it was usually along a hyper-palatable stretch of Scottsdale’s Marshall Way, in the form of giant pots along the 51, or safely served up by a graduating MFA student in the Harry Wood Gallery in ASU’s art building. Sure, some legitimate artists were trying to make a go of it showing their AbEx paintings or experimental films and drawings, usually under the Art Detour umbrella. The now-thriving Roosevelt arts district (specifically Modified Arts) — which may as well have been in the avenues as far as the Scottsdale crowd was concerned — was then bringing in less-than-mainstream music and art to a small, dedicated audience willing to make the trek to the nearly-dead downtown, but nothing really seemed to matter. The politics were bad. The library was cool.
PAM, SMoCA, ASU
Even though, at the time I left, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art were both vying for juggernaut status in the Valley of the Sun, bringing in American flag or rock ’n roll shows or The Art Guys, the real destination then to see contemporary art was the Arizona State University Art Museum. It was there that I first saw Bill Viola’s work. It was where I saw Sue Coe eviscerate the corporate meat industry. It was where I first saw a Julian Schnabel and a Kcho and a Luis Jiménez. As a young, hungry artist, ASU’s museum always felt like the equivalent of a teaching hospital.
Bragg’s Pie Factory
A recent collaboration with Larry Bob Phillips brought me back to Phoenix. Our space was indicative of the burgeoning cultural rebranding taking place along the former pay-by-the-hour-motel district on Grand Avenue. Artist studios and galleries dot the street, while murals expand the sense that this part of Phoenix is attracting artists and creative entrepreneurs interested in investing their energies into a collective, cultural renaissance of the area.
I made my way into Tempe to see the Pablo Helguera shows at ASU. I went to the Antoine Predock-designed main building and found myself in the lower galleries of the museum with the “Funny Papers” exhibit. From Felix the Cat and Blondie, to posters by José Guadalupe Posada and work by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (aka J. J. Grandville) and Enrique Chagoya, the show features original drawings for comic strips as well as examples of how artists have either appropriated comic imagery or used comic stylings and structure in their own work. The show made me wish that more contemporary art had punchlines or was just funnier in general. It also reinforced the idea that art really should be constructed along the same lines as comedy.
I also explored “Contemporary Art from Cuba” and a really interesting show called “This is Not America, Part III” which looks “at the intersection of art and social change through the lens of ASU Art Museum’s collection . . . .” The best part of the installation was the lack of wall labels. In fact, there was very little textual hand holding, which kicked away any laziness as I had to engage with the accumulated relationships between images and objects in the room.
Finally, after some head scratching about where to find the Pablo Helguera show, I was pointed north into the trendy shopping and gastronomical fanciness of Mill Avenue. After passing the former location of Tempe’s Long Wong’s (Elvis Del Monte!), I passed into ASU’s Art Museum Brickyard space at 7th Street just east of Mill and was directed to Helguera’s “Chrestomathy.”
“Chrestomathy” (a selection of passages used to learn a language) is comprised of four pieces that function as a collection of mis-remembrances and misinformation. “Canon,” geographically the furthest piece in the show, is a two-channel video projection featuring interior shots of The Enrico Caruso Museum of America in Brooklyn and a portrait of a man who looks like a modern-day version of Caruso — come to find out it’s his great-grandson, Riccardo. The voice of the long-dead Enrico bounces through the squashed architecture of the Brickyard space, filling out the hollow between floor and ceiling and wrapping the viewer in the drama of the past meeting the present.
The collapsing of time is further investigated in “On the Future of Art,” an engaging presentation of the residue of Helguera’s encounter with and influence from Edward F. Fry’s book of lectures of the same name. Helguera first encountered the book in its Spanish version (Sobre el Futuro del Arte) as a young man in Mexico City. The dramatic hook of his presentation is that Helguera unknowingly takes on the same role as Fry — as lecture organizer at the Whitney — decades later. In so doing, he is surprised when he comes across Fry’s original English copy and proceeds to investigate the gap between his original ideas about the book and what Fry had intended with the lectures.
Helguera’s work is satisfying and obvious at the same time. “Rogaland,” for instance, is a purposeful mistranslation of a Norwegian book of photographs and diagrams. Helguera constructs descriptions based on assumptions of how the images are organized but also on how the story he wants to create should unfold, which is really the best part of art. The work is engaging and clever, and embodies a bridge between past and present, eliding some of the burdens of originality associated with constructing art from a void. The objects Helguera selects become imperfect filters that allow for a welcomed misguidance, a mental détournement, which results in unexpected results for both artist and audience.
Phoenix looks different now. The Phoenix Art Museum has a great permanent contemporary art collection today. SMoCA just commissioned a mural from graffiti artist James Marshall, which is an interesting addition to its Will Bruder-branded space. ASU’s hungry tendrils have taken over major real estate all over the city (especially downtown). And thousands of people — most of them young — are drawn downtown each month, skirting past the ghosts of the past to fill the arts district with an energy it didn’t have when I was there. They are talking about art, talking about the murals on 16th Street, talking about how they can make Phoenix better.