Capital Ideas

Visual and performance art launch a month-long exhibit by Phoenix's ARTLAB 16.

THE PHOENIX DADAISTS are about to alight in Tucson.

ARTLAB 16, a "consortium of contemporary artists" from the Valley of the Sun, kicks off a month-long exhibition at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery with an evening of performance art Saturday night.

"We show video, we do live stuff, we mix it up," Jeff Falk, the loquacious cofounder of the group, said by phone last week. "It's not original. The Dadaists did it, too."

What the Dadaists didn't have, but ARTLAB 16 does, is early 21st-century technology. Video artist Steve Gompf, for instance, "has been threatening to project videos on the wall" at the opening, Falk added. And the artists' visual works rely on advanced photographic techniques and digital animation. But philosophically, the ARTLABbers are in line with the kind of "experimental, open-ended" work that would have warmed the hearts of those earlier European art rebels.

Falk even talks in a sort of Dadaist Manifesto-speak when he describes the goals of 3-year-old ARTLAB 16.

"There aren't enough galleries in the world at the beginning of the 21st century to hold all the great art. The burden of promoting culture falls on artists. You can't wait for a gallery ... . This is what we do, and we invite other people along for the ride.

"It will be a visual to a performance to a poetry evening. Jack Evans will read his poetry--he was honored once at the Bisbee Poetry Festival. I do performance art. And Jason, known as JRC, does performance art."

Many of the ARTLABbers do both performance and visual work, but the show, Falk said, is "first and foremost an exhibition of our tactile work."

The Phoenix performing artists won't be in residence during the month of the exhibition, but their visual art will, providing a useful comparison to the contemporary artwork now being done in Tucson. They've got some strong credentials for art outsiders. Video artist Gompf shows at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery, and painters Jo-Ann Lowney and Joel Coplin are represented by Vanier Gallery, also of Scottsdale. Sculptor Lew Alquist is an art prof at Arizona State who recently closed a University of Arizona Museum of Art show of his "radioactive Fiesta Ware." Annie Lopez has work in the permanent collection of the Tucson Museum of Art.

Falk and Lopez have had a relationship with Dinnerware going back at least 15 years, he said, and the company did performance art in the space last February. As part of the current exchange, ARTLAB sponsored a Dinnerware show in Phoenix in April.

"We had a good response," he said. "They got a little press, but no sales."

Completing the circle, some 10 ARTLAB artists are now showing at the Tucson space. Gompf leans toward the technical in his mixed-media sculptures. His "televisers" look like "faux television sets, circa 1901," Falk explained. "Images are flickering on the sets; they appear to be ancient television transmissions. They're really digital animations based on early 20th-century photographic images." Falk claimed that a Los Angeles museum was all set to give Gompf a show until they discovered "these were not ancient TVs. They didn't like the punchline. But postmodern art is like that."

Lowney and Coplin, a married couple who run an art colony in a rundown motel in Apache Junction, offer a contrast to Gompf's techno work. They're "brilliant painters in a baroque style," Falk said. "They're an anomaly in today's art world. They paint so damn well."

Coplin, who recently was commissioned to paint a mural at Phoenix City Hall, and Lowney trained at the Art Students League in New York. They operate an art store in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains among what Falk calls the "blue-haired tribe" of trailer park dwellers. The combination of traditional training and Western Gothic setting makes for paintings that go from "the surreal to the mythological, woven into the contemporary world."

Lopez, who is married to Falk, is well-known in Tucson for her cyanotypes, inventive photographic works. These pieces mimic the usual photographic processes but substitute unusual materials for the conventional. Lopez might print, for instance, with strange chemicals on thick rag paper. Among the other artists in the Dinnerware show, Alquist will exhibit kinetic sculptures; Carlos Fresquez, of Denver, will show mixed-media work; Sharri Weinberg offers video; and Adam Falk, Lopez and Falk's 12-year-old son, checks in with ceramics and drawing.

Falk, who has yet to give up his day job as a "pencil pusher" at a Phoenix hospital, began his art career as an oil painter. Now he does what he calls "mixed-media performance" as well as mixed-media sculpture. Three years ago, frustrated by gallery opportunities in Phoenix, he started up ARTLAB 16 with Lopez and poet Evans. Lopez and Falk had recently decamped from MARS, an alternative Phoenix arts space that's the closest thing the Valley has a to a Dinnerware. Like Dinnerware, which underwent a shakeup last year and lost its longtime director Nora Kuehl, MARS has had its troubles, Falk said, and "needs an infusion of new blood, of young blood."

ARTLAB 16 took its name from lab signs that Falk and Lopez had noticed on drives up the mountain to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "We've been visiting Santa Fe and Los Alamos for many years. We'd see these signs on the mountain, Lab 12, Lab 15. So we're an Art Lab. Sixteen was the number of the suite in the building." For a while, the group had an "actual edifice in Phoenix. But that wasn't working. It took money and we let the lease go. We decided to do things as a production company."

Falk says that the downtown Phoenix art scene "waxes and wanes" but right now is "not doing too bad(ly). In Phoenix we have a downtown that supports about 30 art spaces." Artlink, a nonprofit modeled on the Tucson Arts District, sponsors First Fridays at the galleries, modeled on Tucson's Downtown Saturday Nights.

Even so, in Phoenix as in Tucson, it's a struggle to make an art life. But both cities ought to take a lesson from great cities past and present.

"Art may or may not be important," Falk declared. "But no significant culture has existed without it. No significant city has existed without it."