Flicker, Spark, Flame
The sudden, unexpected death of Rose Johnson, for years a Downtown Phoenix fixture and player in the City’s developing contemporary art infrastructure, caused our cultural community’s lights to flicker. It sparked me to look back at the rise of contemporary art in our Valley and to identify, acknowledge, and celebrate those trailblazers who came before, their legacies, and their influences which paved the way to where we are at the beginning of a new year and a new decade. It seems appropriate that Kim Larkin and Adam Murray are taking the torch from one such trailblazer Kimber Lanning, the founder of Modified Arts on Roosevelt Row in Downtown Phoenix.
Recently, after being introduced by Kimber to Adam and Kim, I went off on one of my tangents about the impressive, but actually short in retrospect, rise of the cultural Phoenix, an idea that resonated with the new guard at Modified Arts. They too had been impressed by who they were meeting, the art they were seeing, the places they were visiting, and trying to synthesize it all as they settled into their new lives here.
Paralleling the rapid growth of Phoenix, the cultural infrastructure has blossomed in the past fifty years. At one point several years ago, there were four museums being built, remodeled or added on to simultaneously. That is impressive by anyone’s standards! From a linear perspective, 1960 was a baseline year for our contemporary art community when a group of civic leaders including artist Philip C. Curtis and Walter Bimson, the chairman of the Valley National Bank (then Bank One, then Chase), founded the Phoenix Art Museum. There had been significant art practice here before by artists and illustrators who came to the desert for the natural beauty, amazing light, and new commercial opportunities, such as Jesse Benton Evans, Marjorie Thomas, John Stuart Curry, George Elbert Burr, Augustus Dunbier, Andy Chuka, and Robert Harris. Artists, like Curtis, Lew Davis and wife Mathilde Shaefer, and Phillips Sanderson, came to the Valley to work on Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) projects starting in the mid-1930s. Many stayed and others came. Artists survived through commercial work, corporate and private commissions, collector investment groups, and through sales in galleries including Scottsdale’s first gallery, The Stable Gallery, founded in 1960 by Avis Read, the Thompson Gallery on North Central Avenue, the Riva Yares, Elaine Horwitch, Suzanne Brown, Marilyn Butler, Lisa Sette, and Bentley galleries in Scottsdale.
Like other cities, we share a legacy of artists banding together to promote their work and advance their careers. Founded in 1937, Arizona Painters and Sculptors was a predecessor to groups that were either similarly organized (Phoenix Artists Coalition) or formed due to common aesthetic and/or personal interests (The House Studios, 3-Car Pileup, TRE 25). Since the early 1970s, Phoenix has benefited from resilient artspaces with long life spans such as Alwun House (founded 1970), Movimiento Artistisco de Rio Salado [MARS] (1978), 11 East Ashland (1986), and The Icehouse (1990). They paved the way for more recent iterations – Modified Arts (1999), ersonName w:st=”on”>Eye LoungeersonName> (founded in 1999 and spearheaded by visionaries Cindy Dach and Greg Esser), 515 Arts (also Dach/Esser and others), as well as Perhelion Arts (2002) and Pravis Gallery (2006). In 1989, lead by ersonName w:st=”on”>Beatrice Moore and Tony ZahnersonName>, Artlink inaugurated Art Detour and in 2004 launched First Fridays which has become the largest monthly art walk in the United States.
Establishing themselves and their business in Phoenix, Larkin and Murray’s approach includes fresh enthusiasm, open-mindedness, intense curiosity, and an admirable desire to understand the Phoenix visual, sound, and performance arts landscape. They have encountered an abundance of artists, other gallerists, collectors, curators, arts administrators, and business people, several whom they asked to make oral histories on video for the exhibition and for their website. Their strategy is smart, genuine, and passionate. From their acculturation adventure, they selected art for this exhibition which deeply resonated with them. While appearing eclectic and in no way an encyclopedic survey, the art in this inaugural re-launch of Modified Arts celebrates and spotlights the legacies of people who came before and of people still actively working today. It also demonstrates rekindled enthusiasm and response to Kim and Adam’s efforts and shared vision by artists, collectors, galleries, and private dealers who have generously lent art work for this noteworthy exhibit. Viewers will delight in seeing works which they may not be familiar with by artists Philip C. Curtis, Lew Davis, Dorothy Fratt, Phillips Sanderson, ersonName w:st=”on”>Beth Ames SwartzersonName>, and Fritz Scholder. They also will enjoy seeing current and historic work by Downtown Phoenix pioneer artists like Beatrice Moore, Janet de Berge Lange, Jeff Falk, Annie Lopez, as well as offerings by Bob Adams, Lew Alquist, Mark Klett, John Armstrong, and Sean O’Donnell. The exhibit includes art by artists who emerged on the scene in the 1990s including Randy Slack, Steve Yazzie, David Dauncey, ersonName w:st=”on”>James AngelersonName>, and Sara Abbott. Photos by ersonName w:st=”on”>Joe JankovskyersonName> document performances as well as the actual space at The Icehouse and MARS.
Is there an aesthetic or stylistic common thread connecting the art works in this exhibition? What effect does a rapidly growing urban environment whose cultural infrastructure naturally lags behind basic city infrastructure, i.e. water/sewer, streets, fire and police stations, have on artists and their art-making practices? Does the art deal with issues that are unique to Phoenix or is the content more of a universal nature? I suggest the common thread is not readily visible, but instead intrinsic to the work made by artists who give voice to ideas, emotions, and social and political concerns while living in a fused naturally beautiful yet harsh, arid, and sprawling, gridded urban environment. These are ideas to think about when viewing this exhibition and afterwards. This work, like all contemporary art, asks the viewer to respond, to finish a statement, or to ask a question.
For many years, La Phoeniquera was an annual juried exhibit at MARS Artspace during the hotter-than-hell summer months. I always anticipated and enjoyed it because it was like taking a pulse on what art was being made in Phoenix and who was making it. In the same vein, Modified Arts: Looking Back to the Future offers opportunities to ponder what is “Phoenix-like” in artistic production here. We are encouraged to celebrate an art community whose flame burns brighter because of contributions made by those who came before us, those here today, and to optimistically anticipate future torchbearers of a rich legacy.
Ted G. Decker