In a spacious gallery filled with the striking and innovative work of 60 artists, four musicians share the spotlight on a small stage. Although they’re playing traditional acoustic classical instruments – violins, viola, and cello – the sounds they create, alternately disturbing and hypnotic, are anything but conventional.
Named for an iconic Arizona amusement park, Legend City is a former auto body shop turned arts venue at 521 West Van Buren, and the workspace of artists Randy Slack, Jon Balinkie, Jason Grubb, and Brandon Sullivan.
“It’s a real point of civic pride,” says DCS founder and Phoenix Symphony musician Mark Dix. “Of the downtown arts community, Chaos Theory really is the annual show people want to [show] in, because each artist is only allowed one piece, and that piece has to be created that month –- thus the term ‘chaos’.”
“These artists in our community who have been here through thick and thin and whose output continues to deepen are just such a treasure,” Dix continues, “and that’s why Downtown Chamber Series exists.”
He explains, “There are lots of opportunities to do chamber music in town, but the visual art is really the true inspiration, and being able to see concerts like this in a room that’s reaching the senses on multiple levels.”
“When you go to see a gallery exhibit,” Dix elaborates, “you’re typically only standing in front of a given painting for a few seconds before you move on to the next one. Being able to have a concert in the space,” he concludes, “[allows] people to sit and really absorb the mastery of this stuff.”
Chosen by Dix, the unusual musical repertoire sets these performances apart from any other chamber music in the Valley. The program begins with a charming early quartet by Beethoven, then continues with the slow second movement of Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, poetically named for a song the composer reused as a theme.
Nearly 150 years later, American composer George Crumb was inspired to use that same lyrical theme in his work Black Angels (Images I): Thirteen Images from the Dark Land, written for amplified string quartet. More of a theatrical piece than strictly chamber music, Black Angels weaves a surreal, unsettling soundscape as it conveys Crumb’s intent: a voyage of the soul in three stages of departure, absence, and return.
Crumb wrote the quartet in response to the Vietnam War and other turmoil of the era, says Dix. “We had the assassinations of Kennedy, of Malcolm X, of Martin Luther King, Jr.…we had the inner-city neighborhoods on fire,” he explains. “So all of these things wrapped into the emotions of a given age.”
“This piece has titles and elements in it that allude to Vietnam,” he continues, “such as sounds of insects in the jungle and the terror of war.” It’s also deeply and thoughtfully encoded with symbols and numerology, Dix says.
“The whole piece has a lot of math loaded into it, 13 being the devil and seven being godliness,” he elaborates. “So you have these two things that are juxtaposed against each other – 13 and seven occur throughout the piece.”
Although the string quartet performs surrounded by wine glasses, the drinkware isn’t used for any alcohol-related enhancements. Instead, each glass is painstakingly tuned to a specific pitch and used as a musical instrument, as specified by Crumb’s score.
“Three of us are playing wine glasses – we each have about seven of them, and then the cellist is playing a solo on top of that,” says Dix. “So, similar to the sound of bells, using a wet finger on the rim of the glass creates a vibration.”
It’s an ethereal sound that contrasts sharply with other effects in the piece. At one point Crumb instructs the players to lower their instruments from under their chins and instead play them between their knees.
“When it gets into that gorgeous chant-like section, it’s a reference to the ‘Death and the Maiden’ theme from Schubert,” says Dix. “We hold our instruments as if they’re viols,” he describes, “which forces us to play rather expressionlessly, and the sound becomes much more tenuous and weak…a medieval type of sound.” Crumb’s intention was to parody a Spanish Renaissance sarabande.
“I think pulling that dark theme from the Schubert quartet was something that spoke to him,” Dix speculates. “And it’s got a beautiful solo on top of it, and that very meditative moment, and you just want it to continue,” he says, “but then it gets truncated.” Dix laughs. “And then it gets back into this battle of heaven and hell.”
“There’s a notation at the end of the piece,” Dix recalls, “where the upper string players are fingering notes with their left hand and sliding the fingers, and then with the other hand gently flutter-drumming the string with two thimbles on two fingers.”
“So you have these multiple things going on,” he continues; “the pitches being generated on the string, the string being hammered with the thimbles, and then the hammers moving up and down the string. And that effect is very delicate, and it can really only be heard by the person holding the instrument, not by an audience.”
The solution, decided Crumb, was to use microphones, not to add to the audio palette but to amplify those sounds created by the musicians. “Those effects are created by his masterful detail in the score, not by someone on a sound board with a computer,” Dix clarifies.
“What I’m getting at,” he continues intently, “is that the percussion elements are not employed to just be cute or unusual. They’re really employed by a very sophisticated composer to take us to a place.”
He compares Crumb to skilled soundtrack composers like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann. “We experience this all the time in a film score,” says Dix, “when we see a movie and there are things employed by a composer, be it on a synthesizer or hopefully by a full orchestra, which really magnify the intensity of a murder scene, or of any emotion you can imagine.”
“It takes me to an emotional place of relevance,” he elaborates, “where I can relate to this art that he’s created.” Dix smiles ruefully. “On a personal level I was just hungry for a heavy program that really dealt with some darker thoughts and emotions.”
“It’s sort of like when you’re going through any type of hell in life; when the good moments come up, you want them to last longer, and they don’t. They get chopped off.” He pauses. “And when the bad moments are happening, they’re interminable, and you want them to end. So there’s the sort of schizophrenic nature of it.”
Downtown Chamber Series musician photos by Tom Marrs.
If you go:
- What: Downtown Chamber Series, featuring violinists Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Tessa Gotman, violist and DCS founder Mark Dix, and cellist Jan Simiz.
- Where: Legend City Studios
- When: 8PM on Saturday, November 17 and Sunday, November 18.
- More info: find it on composer George Crumb’s website and learn more about Black Angels, including Crumb’s own program notes.
I can tell you about the first piece of art I saw that stuck in my memory. I was angry, confused and 16 and figured that “art” meant “painting” or “large obnoxious sculpture sitting in front of a high rise building.” Luckily, I had a caring art teacher who wanted to expose some of us to a bit more.
I walked into a room at the Philadelphia Art Museum and peered through 2 eye holes in a wooden wall and saw something I couldn’t explain. It was a landscape with flickering light, moving components, a figure, and what looked like an entrance into another world. Nothing in my ordinary life up to that point prepared me for that jarring moment when I realized that art wasn’t just one thing that took a specific form but could be a combination of elements that created an experience. The experience stayed with me. Years later in art school, I saw an image of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (below left) and realized that it was the same piece.
As a person with little to no art education at the time, I was moved by a piece that incorporated numerous materials, media and concepts that was made before I was born, and by a man who supposedly abandoned art for chess. I always think of this when someone tells me that average people won’t appreciate conceptual or multimedia work. I was average but what made the work and the experience memorable was the very fact that it wasn’t what I expected art to be.
In Phoenix, when asked to give an example of a work of art, there is a tendency to mention a painting, photograph, or sculpture. There is also a tendency for some to preface the conversation with how they don’t know anything about art, and therefore didn’t really understand what they were looking at. The momentum of the Phoenix art scene has been going strong now for over 10 years but, more often than not, what we see are the three previously mentioned mediums. Interspersed amongst this work, artists have emerged with work that challenges these traditions.
The contemporary art world does not function solely as a group of painters. Multimedia works utilizing technology, audience involvement, interventions, and site-specificity are a pervasive and customary inclusion in most contemporary exhibits. Yet, what we typically see at exhibits in Phoenix are standard material-based work. This isn’t to slight those working in traditional materials, or to say that multimedia works are the answer to our conceptual prayers, but to emphasize the importance of diverse exhibit content.
Working in a realm that most people are unfamiliar with is a risk, but can also be a gateway to a different process of understanding creativity and aesthetic experience. By setting up an unexpected environment that utilizes creative tactics, an audience is caught off guard. They register an experience rather than confront whether or not they are viewing art.
Some members of our community regularly take this gamble.
- Chris Danowski’s cross-cultural, intermedia and collaborative 9 Muses project (unexpectedly brought to a pause due to a damaged laptop).
- The previously published art zine Join and Cast Guide created by then ASU undergrads Jennifer Campbell and Catherine Akins that blended original artist submissions, writing, page design and a comprehensive snapshot of what was happening in the Phoenix art scene at that time.
- The Desert Art Lab who attempts to re-desert-ify the desert by distributing numbered cactus for participants to plant.
- The wheat-pasting of impromptu messages and imagery focused on attacking the anti-immigrant stance our state has taken (above right).
- The Tempe or ASU-based UrbanStew who regularly blends technology, sound, movement and other media to conduct multi-media projects and events.
- The work of resident artists at Combine Studios through ASU’s Desert Initiative.
Just next door to us we have a gigantic university with an Intermedia program that supplies this city with a flow of diversified, conceptual multimedia work. In order to retain the artists emerging from this program, they need to be involved in exhibits that appreciate and support them before having to leave for more sophisticated venues.
What makes these works and these people different are their ability to shift your perception. Instead of focusing on material and the physical process of a work, you become aware of many pieces fitting together. They are not as concerned with a standard art show setup and instead look at something relevant and necessary for themselves and the community.
Phoenix is a ripe environment to try anything new, with few barriers to putting on any type of event in any location at any time. The literal openness of our environment makes it so experimentation is invited and not restricted. In other words: no one except ourselves is stopping us from trying something different.
DPJ’s Wire series delivers news and information straight from the source without translation.
On November 16, from 6-9 p.m., Artlink is launching a new series of Third Friday Collectors Tours. These exclusive guided trolley tours will take participants “behind the scenes” of the most exciting exhibitions and artist studios in downtown Phoenix. Knowledgeable Artlink guides will share their insights on the contemporary art scene in downtown Phoenix and provide background on the artist spaces and galleries the participants will visit on the tour.
The tour begins with a welcome reception at the Artlink table outside of the Phoenix Art Museum. Tour participants can park in the museum parking lot before boarding the trolley for their private hosted tour. This first tour will include viewing the work and meeting the artists at:
• Willo North Gallery, featuring “Fauna/Fauna” with work by Christy Puetz and Carolyn Lavender;
• Michael Marlowe Studio at Jackson Street Studios, and
• Modified Arts, featuring Sue Chenoweth’s “Real and Applied.”
The galleries/artist spaces will provide light refreshments, and tour participants will enjoy a private viewing of the work and the opportunity to meet the curators and artist(s) in an intimate setting to learn more about their processes and vision.
Tickets are $35 and seating is limited. To reserve your space for Artlink’s Third Friday Tour, please go to Eventbrite at http://artlinkphoenix.com/third-friday-collectors-tours-begin-november-16/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, number of seats, contact information and best time to reach you.
Currently, on any given First or Third Friday, you can venture into downtown Phoenix and find yourself a nice enough art exhibit, with a crowd of visitors. This wasn’t always the case. I remember rough times as a founding member of Eye Lounge when we were happy to see at least 25 people come through the door.
Now it’s over 10 years later and Phoenix has developed a steady stream of of people eager to see what’s happening. This is surely a sign of Phoenix’s cultural growth, but what is next? How does the downtown art scene evolve into something more significant? As an artist, I’ve always believed that we owe the our audience a challenge. We must create work that takes risks and makes our audience ask “what is this about?”
I moved to Phoenix in 1996 after having grown up around institutions like the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art and even the rich, cultural density of the small city of Reading, PA. I expected art and substance to be here, just waiting for me to access it. I quickly found that, like so many things in this city, you really have to dig into its layers and sometimes you have to work to create it.
The Phoenix art scene is at a pivotal point. At first, it was sufficient to put up a show—any show—and hope that people would come see it. Now there’s a sense that something more needs to happen to shift into the next gear. Do we continue to evolve and take our place among other culturally significant cities or risk idling into oblivion and diminishing all the hard work that’s gone into getting us to this point? The question is not is there an art exhibit anymore, the question must be what is it about?
In some ways, this transition has begun to happen. Independent curators such as Lara Taubman (now Wisniewski), Gina Cavallo Collins, Ted Decker and Modified directors Kim Larkin and Jeff Chabot have, in the past and present, designed shows centered around complex themes—presenting work that wasn’t guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser but which takes advantage of the captive audience and open venues to dive into headier subjects, such as immigration, the vacancy of space in Phoenix, the video game as art piece or the language and images of war taking many forms. In the area of performance art, The Phoenix Fringe Festival has taken on this challenge—giving a platform for odd, ephemeral and performance-based work. The success of the festival is based on our local art and performance community’s willingness to try something different and gamble on the results.
Although taking risks and exploring new forms of presentation, materials and venues doesn’t automatically generate substance, the process of thinking in this direction has the potential to create works that have more social and personal relevance. Failures are possible, but within them are the possibility to discover something new. Putting a thoughtfully selected group of artists together to address a common concept gives the audience a theme and common ground for engaging with the work; much like reading a collection of essays on sea exploration or watching Shark Week on TV— they get to see different angles of a singular idea.
All of the ingredients are here. We have a vibrant, proactive group of creative individuals that believe in community and support each other thoroughly. These individuals are intelligent, thoughtful, enterprising people who have managed to galvanize an area and develop an audience. Microcosms of artist groups have developed within this larger whole that express different perspectives and commonalities. These commonalities could be explored to generate exhibitions, performances, events, happenings, or interventions that would highlight the most compelling aspects of the artists at work in this city.
Phoenix should continue to expand on the groundwork that has been laid. Imagine Phoenix as a city known not just for the mobs of people clogging Roosevelt, offering free hugs and flyers, but for something deeper, more complex, strange, ridiculous, edgy or thoughtful. Let’s see and become artists who are pushing boundaries, creating work that compels audiences to ask themselves questions about what they’re seeing. Let us allow our audiences to be immersed in work that will make them think. Curiosity, confusion, wonder, anger, happiness, sadness. Taking Phoenix to the next cultural level is possible if we stop to think what this is all about.
“I can tell you that because I came to the reservation it changed my life,” says photographer Kenji Kawano, “because I met a code talker when I was hitchhiking somewhere around 1975…Mr. Carl Nelson Gorman – he was one of the original 29. And also I met my wife.”
37 years later, the images from Kawano’s camera come to the Heard Museum this weekend as Navajo Code Talkers, an exhibit complemented by Native Words, Native Warriors from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service.
Born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1949, Kawano found that his imagination was fired by the work of photographers Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. After visiting American Air Force and Navy bases in Japan to take photos, he came to the United States following high school.
“My thinking was to take pictures in Los Angeles, make a portfolio, and take my work back to Tokyo to have a photography exhibit…and if I’m lucky, I might become a freelance photographer.” Kawano laughs. “But when I look back now, it was a terrible plan.”
“I told my parents, ‘I’m going to America, but only for three months,’” he continues, “but actually I went back to Japan 7½ years later with my Navajo wife.” Unable to find any good projects in Los Angeles, Kawano leaped at a friend’s suggestion that he explore Navajo culture.
“Since I grew up watching Western movies when I was small,” he recalls, “I thought, ‘Maybe that’s a good idea, to go to the reservation to take pictures of Native Americans in everyday life.’”
Although he spoke neither English nor Navajo, the 25-year-old Kawano ended up in the heart of the Navajo reservation, living with a family and working at a gas station in Ganado, where he learned both languages from customers.
Kawano also broadened his experience by hitchhiking between Ganado, Window Rock, and Gallup. Along one of those roads he met Carl Gorman, and from then on Kawano’s life became inextricably entwined with the story of the Navajo code talkers.
Gorman was one of the first 29 Navajo men recruited by the Marines in 1942 to create a secret code based on the Navajo language. The code used Navajo words to indicate letters of the alphabet (for example: lha-cha-eh for “dog,” indicating the letter D) or certain military terms (lo-tso for “whale,” which meant “battleship”) – an ironic use of a Native American language the U.S. government tried diligently to eradicate in boarding schools.
Throughout World War II, the code remained unbroken by the Japanese, and around 420 Navajo code talker Marines served in the Pacific, communicating messages by telephone and radio. Occasionally, the young code talkers would be mistaken for Japanese and captured by fellow American soldiers. President Ronald Reagan designated August 14 as National Code Talkers Day, and in 2000 they were awarded Congressional Medals.
The man Kawano refers to as “my Navajo father,” Carl Gorman, helped create the code. He returned from the war, attended art school on the G.I. Bill, and eventually founded the Native American Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, befriending a young Japanese photographer along the way.
“Back in 1982, when Mr. Gorman was president of the Code Talkers Association, they chose me as official photographer and honorary member,” says Kawano, whose father served in the Japanese navy. He continues, “People say, ‘Why do you choose a former enemy?’ but Mr. Gorman said, ‘Kenji, we don’t hate you, because war is between two countries, not me and your father.’ So, quickly I became a friend of all the code talkers.”
After meeting his wife, Ruth Williams, at the College of Ganado, Kawano became the official photographer for the Navajo Nation and staff photographer for Navajo Times Today. In 1990 he published the book Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, which contained a series of portraits.
“I really wanted people to know what young Navajo G.I.s did for this country – they didn’t use rifles; they used their language as a weapon,” explains Kawano. He’s delighted that his exhibition at the Heard will be displayed in tandem with Native Words, Native Warriors, which gives a great deal of background and context to the history of American Indian soldiers.
Kawano’s exhibition at the Heard features an array of snapshots taken between 1975 and 2012 and two portraits, including one young man holding a photo of his grandfather…who was photographed holding a photo of that same grandson as an infant. “I’m still taking pictures,” says Kawano. “I spend so much time for my project, and it never ends. This code talkers work is my lifework.”
- Both exhibits, Navajo Code Talkers and Native Words, Native Warriors, are on display at the Heard Museum through March 31, 2013.
- Find photographer Kenji Kawano’s portfolio and books on his website.
- The National Museum of the American Indian provides a companion website for the traveling Smithsonian exhibition Native Words, Native Warriors.
- Visit the Official Website of the Navajo Code Talkers, or find more information and documents on the National Archives website and the Naval History & Heritage Command website.
- The Navajo Code Talkers’ dictionary was declassified in 1968.
- Related articles in The New York Times include information about the Navajo code talkers and an obituary for Carl Gorman.