I start with a rather generic tourist photo of myself just outside the museum to make a point. The Phoenix Art Museum has some good qualities, but the physical plant isn’t one. Search for a good photo of the exterior, and you won’t find one. The museum sits next to the Phoenix Theater, which dominates the narrow street and hogs the parking spaces. Inside is not much better. The museums sprawls over three floors, with long corridors that are inconvenient for showing art. There is no central focus; it wanders.
The entrance is greatly enlivened by Carlos Amorales’ Black Cloud, consisting of 25,000 paper butterflies and moths swarming over the walls and ceiling. It brings so much life and energy to the space, but also makes it clear that this area (the Greenbaum Lobby and Morrell promenade – they even sold naming rights to the admissions desk!) could be pretty bleak when empty.
My girlfriend Heather and I were there the Saturday after Thanksgiving, so I can’t speak much to the attendance on an average weekend, but in terms of gallery spaces, the special exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire was pleasantly busy, more so than any other gallery. Since I’m no scholar on the subject, I can’t comment on the quality of the research, but I found the carved stones, jewelry, and mural fragments fascinating. Not so fascinating was the layer of dust on the top of many of the vitrines, dust thick enough that people had drawn smiley faces in it. If there was dust on the glass, what about the large sculptural works that were shown freestanding?
There were galleries of Old Masters, some on loan from a private collection: the museum is right to mention Gerrit van Honthorst’s Death of Seneca (c. 1625) as a standout. It’s lovely. There were a couple of reminders that Benjamin West could paint very well, but not all the time. Unique in my experience, they have a small gallery devoted to Sikh art, in this case highlighting images of Sikh soldiers in the First World War. A small gallery, barely more than a wide place in a corridor, highlighting the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada was quite welcome, as was a gallery pairing Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – though I have to say, having one of Rauschenberg’s rotating disc works (Passport, from Ten for Leo Castelli, 1967) without any way to rotate it annoyed me.
I’m not usually captivated by fashion exhibits, but I found ultracontemporary, on the second floor, quite fanciful and engaging. The clothes straddle the dividing line between something you could actually wear and art you hang on your body but you can’t really go out on the town in. The Kawakubo outfit above was my favorite; like wearing an up-to-date patchwork quilt. Dunno about those shoes, though…
For me the museum is at its best showing contemporary art, though again its architecture doesn’t always help. A huge hall looked rather empty, swallowing a James Turrell installation, a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, and more in its cavernous space. And, as someone who once worked installing a LeWitt myself, I am steamed when museum labels fail to mention the artisans who executed the work. Shame!
Some of my favorites were represented: a Cornelia Parker work (Mass [Colder Darker Matter], 1997) made of charred wood from a Texas church that was struck by lightning; two Kehinde Wiley paintings, a psychedelic Joseph Stella painting from 1931; I even liked the very small Damien Hirst dot painting. But the highlight of the visit for me was Ragnar Kjartansson’s show, Scandinavian Pain and other Myths. While the light piece above actually sat well in the huge space, it is Kjartansson’s video The Visitors that drew me. It was the only work I went back to look at a second time.
The Visitors is not a new work, dating to 2013, but I had not had the opportunity to see it until now. It consists of Kjartansson and a group of musicians performing a song based on a poem by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, artist Ásidís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. Each musician is filmed alone in a slightly worn room in an old mansion in upstate New York (the backing singers congregate on the porch). For about an hour they sing and play, each recorded separately so as you walk around the nine screens the different instruments rise and fall. Eventually they rise and walk outside and into the distance, still singing the refrain “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” I found myself moved without quite understanding why; I definitely sang along. I have read numerous reviews and articles on The Visitors over the years, and it did not disappoint.
And lastly, they had a Yayoi Kusama installation, You Who Are Getting Obliterated In The Dancing Swarm of Butterflies (2005). Fireflies might have been a more apt word, but I’m not going to argue. How to quantify her installations? If you’re looking for deep philosophical or intellectual content, this isn’t the right artist for you. If you are looking for an artist who changes your sense of space in an entertaining way, by all means. Kusama is, I suspect one of the inspirations behind Meow Wolf, but I’m not going to get into that here. We went into the space, which was second-most popular after Teotihuacan but not remotely crowded, and had a good time being surrounded by colored lights and slightly disoriented by the dark, mirrored space. So you can put my down as a Kusama supporter, though not a devoted one. Coming at the end of the visit, which started with black butterflies in a light-filled space, walking through the dark surrounded by lights that fade on and off, was fitting.
I’ll keep tabs on the museum’s doings in the years ahead; it is the nearest and largest art museum in the area. As such, it’ll suffice, and in some ways more than that.