Scottsdale, Arizona Art Galleries' "Art Walk" (1990s)



 Scottsdale's Art Walk provides an opportunity to meet friends, talk with artists, drink punch and eat cheese. These may be reasons enough to spend a Thursday evening strolling Main Street and Marshall Way.


 The degree of enjoyment of the art, however, is another matter, entirely dependent on aesthetic understanding. The less we know, the more we may find pleasing in the art on display. The more we know, the less art we may see that rises above fundamental mediocrity.


 Leonard Baskin, however, one of few major artists to exhibit here (long-term at the Bishop Gallery), is an import from the East, so his achievement, world-renowned since the 1950's, doesn't exactly count as art indigenous to the region. But we'll take any help we can get. He has constructed a legitimate reputation exploring the darker side of contemporary humanity in symbolic prints and sculpture.


 DeAnn Melton, at the Vanier Gallery, stars with large, thickly-painted oils; bold, canvas-filling still-lifes spilling heaps of fruit, vegetables, fish and flowers piled high against seascape backgrounds. James Cook, is an even heavier impasto landscape painter.


 Robert Anderson at Art One paints inventive, whimsical, sardonic commentaries on humanity and the world. Janet Fish at Joy Tash combines realism with psychological implication in her still-lifes (Fish is an eastern artist, too).


 The Russian artists at Overland are interesting once you get past the propaganda pictures...incredibly happy peasants and heroic workers. There are some sensitive, serious portraits, to speak only of their figurative work.


 But, the Scottsdale galleries essentially cater to the superficial tastes of interior decorators, tourists and a generally art-ignorant public. Bloated artistic reputations support the process. Abstract, paint-roller swathes and swatches of pretty color vie with pop art cowboys and indians nearly abstract themselves in pink and turquoise, or soulless in photographically-detailed meticulousness. The art-therapeutic worth of Willie Nelson's well-known musical advice increases exponentially with a slight modification ..."mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be (painters of) cowboys."


 The so-called realism in the galleries assumes the weakest, most derivative, most seductive forms designed to offend only the knowledgeable. If not based on directly copied photographs, this approach mixes California Impressionism, academicism and art magazine commercial illustration in a mongrel style featuring pointlessly thick paint, swishy brushwork and predictably sweet color.


 Landscapes are either as painfully photographic as the cowboys and indians, follow the mongrel style above, or are brightly cartoony borrowings from Santa Fe (in turn borrowed from early-century German Expressionism or Fauvism, but without the bite). There is little close observation of, or heart-felt, original response to, nature and reality.


 You will also be properly numbed by numerous grinning children (was childhood ever that puerile?) and oh, so slender, graceful dancers throwing transcendental fits of pseudo-poetic ecstasy. Every shallow greeting card sentiment, sentimentality and device -– not one is bypassed -- is thrown in your face like a syrup-filled, Mack Sennett meringue pie.


 And don't forget the deliciously conceived female nudes that sit or semi-recline, feet drawn up under or near attractive buttocks on beds rampant with rumpled white fabric, bedclothes as luxuriant as the sexual pleasures just provided some recently departed male, that now vicariously satisfy the prospective buyer. But, through the artists' mastery, they also epitomize -- in their piquantly lush, young bodies, ample breasts (of course) and demure, downcast eyes -- an aspect of wistful melancholy appropriate to those for whom sex can only be enjoyed with an adequate amount of repentance. Like their better-painted, but still completely cloying counterparts in 19th Century French academic painting, the artists of this genre create a thoroughly satisfying blend of coy sensuality and puritanical righteousness. Lust without guilt disguised as art.


 Past success and fear of financial failure breed present formula. "It worked once, let's milk it until it doesn't work anymore" (or conversely..."we lost big; let's never try that again"). It's wryly amusing, in such a commercial milieu, to even mention that there is rarely, if ever, any original artistic ground broken. How could there be? It's all about the desire for money breeding safely mediocre art. Who has time or inclination to seek genuine art that contains the truths of the human heart, meaning that might make life worthwhile in a materialistic society, despite the fact that all the great artists of the past that we remember and revere today were engaged in precisely such a process?


 The fact is, Scottsdale is merely a local symptom of a nation-wide – world-wide – decline in the arts, which either exploits societal emptiness and corruption with fashionable, pseudo-avant-garde cynicism, or sugar-coats and eliminates anything of substance. You see it in New York City. You see it everywhere.


 The issue of artistic quality in Scottsdale may not be salvageable, where so many seem so unaware. But the hypocrisy is clear. If the galleries' main goal is making money, that's fine; just don't pretend the money-making formulas, spin-offs and clones are art of any stature.




Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms