The smell of chili powder with an earthy, animal undertone wafted across the gallery. While the sound from a three-piece band fills the air, the electric energy of the room was undeniable. The interactive art show Breaking the Barrier opened April 11, and if the reception on April 8 was any indicator, this is unlike any show Flagstaff has seen.
The gallery space at Coconino Center for the Arts was packed during the reception. Attendees and artists mingled and talked, but they were as much a part of the exhibition as the art itself. The art was tactile, immersive, emitted various smells or made strange sounds. Instead of passively viewing the art—as many galleries insist, with their “Do Not Touch” placards prominently displayed—visitors were encouraged to touch, engage with and play with the art, with the intent to eliminate the space between viewer and viewed.
“I wanted it to be surprising, for it to be a stretch for the imagination and maybe for people to be a little shocked,” says Travis Iurato, the Flagstaff Arts Council creative director. “All of the art asks you to step out of your comfort zone and to actually do something in order to make it work. It loosens [visitors] up and breaks the ice. The discomfort turns into a comfort with themselves.”
Artists from across the country were invited to participate in the show. While there were many from Arizona, some traveled from as far away as Brooklyn, San Francisco and France to share their work.
Shawn Skabelund, a Flagstaff local and artist, represented a point of interest. For his piece, he was buried in manure—Welsh pony manure, to be exact. Viewers were invited to munch on carrots while observing Skabelund, resting peacefully, prone on the floor of the gallery, under the manure. Above his head, a bleached white horse skull hung.
Getting eye-level with Skabelund gave viewers an entirely different perspective. There was a cold dampness emanating from the pile of manure, yet Skabelund described how his legs felt very warm. The manure was already trying to compost the artist’s body.
“It’s a real pile of s***, that’s what it is,” says Skabelund, from beneath the dark brown mound.
A gardener, Skabelund sees the garden as a special place of birth, rebirth and eventual death. Just as we add compost and till the soil, we are creating space for new life to emerge. As we harvest our plants, pulling the roots from the ground, we are killing what grew there. We have to eat, and because of this we must come to terms with the endless cycle of life and death. As viewers ate the provided carrots, they were reminded of all the life that came before to produce the single vegetable.
“When you eat a carrot, you’re killing a horse,” Skabelund says.
This wasn’t the first artwork exploring what it means to garden, to grow food and harvest. Skabelund had completed another performance piece in 1996, when his wife was eight months and three weeks pregnant with their soon-to-be son.
“It was the last week of March,” Skabelund says. “I asked her to take all of her clothes off as I was getting the garden beds ready. I wanted her to come out and lay in one of the beds. I then covered her up with black soil.”
Little did Skabelund expect at Saturday’s opening, mischievous visitors and other artists began sticking the carrots in the manure and between his toes. In a sense, they replanted the vegetable into the living soil. For a moment, the cycle was reversed.
Visitors were moved, intrigued and excited by many of the pieces on display. Comments were overheard near Brooklyn, New York-based Allen Riley’s Oversight—an otherworldly, vaguely intimidating structure which viewers lie face down in to activate a hidden camera—that the piece seemed “a prank.”
“It’s a combination of being the object of surveillance and the voyeur, so it is this kind of ambiguous role,” Riley says. “As a consequence of that, there are all these connotations through it that I wasn’t explicitly thinking about.”
Riley’s art, along with many pieces shown at Breaking the Barrier, would not have been possible, or nearly as impressionable, without a sense of humor and a reclamation of childlike awe we often lose as we age. There has to be a willingness to try something that encourages us to feel a bit of discomfort, stand out a little—to not take oneself too seriously.
“Depending on your experience level, there are pieces in the show that are entry points for everybody,” Iurato says. “So if you’re entry point is pulling a drawer in and out, something very safe, then that’s your entry point. But once you do that, you’re going to walk around and want to try everything else.”
Gallery-goers of all ages, some giggly from wine at the cash bar, willingly painted their own Grand Canyon landscape—of course, in colors you won’t see in any Thomas Moran piece. Others chewed bubblegum and then added their masticated piece to a canvas already adorned with the gum of other visitors.
“The best part is the look on people’s faces,” says John Tannous, the Arts Council’s executive director. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and they’ll come out of our exhibitions with a typical look on their faces. It’s not bad, it’s just that they’ve looked at art, and they’ve socialized and that’s been their action. This time, they came out of the exhibition and their faces were lit up. And it’s because they were given permission to play.”
Others walked away nearly in tears. There’s something uniquely intimate about feeling what an artist felt while making a piece, and Under My Skin by Sedona’s Cathy Gazda had an unmatched intimacy, representing a more somber experience for the evening. The artist invites viewers to unpeel layers of clothing off a life-size portrait of herself. Each layer uncovers another aspect of the artist’s story and life experience.
Lizette Melis and Kim Curtis, close friends, engaged in the piece together. They undressed and dressed Gazda’s portrait by taking turns, methodically and gently revealing each vulnerable layer. Both women were visibly moved.
“For me it was the physical activity of peeling the layers of very deep personal and painful experience, and yet it was so beautiful—beautifully decorated and aesthetically pleasing,” Curtis says. “I’m just so in awe of the woman that made herself so transparent.”
For Melis, it was the act of re-clothing Gazda that was even more emotional. With putting the layers back on, they were returning her privacy.
“Re-clothing her, just being able to touch these intimate layers and having had that shared with us, it was very powerful,” Melis says.
Many gallery-goers wonder how long they have to stare at a painting before they “get it.” Breaking the Barrier proves that art doesn’t have to be totally understood in order to be enjoyed—it just has to make you feel something. It helps us realize art can be enjoyed in a number of ways. It might make you laugh, or cry, or simply revel in absurdity.
Breaking the Barrier (along with Altered States by Elizabeth Bonzani and Tanner C. Jensen in the Jewel Gallery) runs through May 27. Gallery hours are Tue–Sat, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 2300 N. Fort Valley Road. Entry is free. For more info, call 779-2300 or visit www.flagartscouncil.org.