Fresh off of its premiere engagement in Chicago, Artopia arrives in downtown Phoenix with its signature display of outsized street art blanketing the facade of a recently vacated warehouse. A hint of what is in store comes in the form of a totally realistic 20-foot high spray paint can — a colossal nod to the tool of choice of street artists and muralists. Chicago-based Afrokilla wraps the building’s exterior wall with a Salt River Valley-inspired “Artopia” banner, while the interior of this same wall is adorned with a mural by local legend, San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham painter Douglas Miles.
Within these walls, Artopia invites us to experience the art installations of over a dozen Phoenix-area artists. A winding passage through the gallery space takes us on a journey to a fantasy world that retains the imprint of a lost civilization of artists and technology-forward people. Artopia visualizes the imagined remnants of an ancient culture in the form of representative sampling of works from the modern day arts community that flourishes in the Valley of the Sun.
Artopia is the brainchild of Dom Brown and his company, Superfruit. In Chicago, Brown achieved great success with the inaugural presentation of the show. The Phoenix installation promises to be at least as successful. “Typically we pop them up and it’s supposed to be a two to three month run,” says Brown. “However we’ve seen such great success here in Phoenix that it’s going to be extended till September .” After this engagement, the roadshow will head on out to Atlanta, Boston, and Washington.
So where does this art actually originate? “All the art that’s inside the exhibit is local to Phoenix,” Brown explains. “Instead of showing up to places and ‘delivering art’, we spend time delving deep into the community. Who are the top installation artists or street style artists? We bring them all together and curate a story, which is Artopia.” Brown continues, “We give them the narrative, and then they create their installations and their artwork to go along with that.”
It is fascinating and heart-warming to see such an opportunity for the community to come together on this type of project. The nature of each installation is up to the local artists. “The reason that we do it that way is because each city that we go to…we want to give them the city pride. It’s a pop-up that’s fueled and created and curated by the people that are from your city.”
Was it a challenge to find exceptional local artists? “No, it wasn’t,” Brown replies without needing to ponder the question. “The artist community here is booming. Over 30,000 people flood over to First Fridays,” referring to the popular arts fair that takes over downtown Phoenix on the first Friday of every month. “We hand-selected some of the best artists and some of the newest artists in Phoenix.” Most notably, one large room is dedicated to the works of indigenous women from the Cahokia Gallery, including an intricate mural, which the women had never attempted before. The project encouraged the artists to experiment with new ideas and media.
Stepping through the serpentine gallery space, we are treated to a sensory experience in shimmering, interactive lights, music, and imagery. We are suddenly accosted by undulating holograms depicting objects of both microscopic and galactic proportions. Here is where we learn the history of this lost world where once the arts and sciences reigned supreme. What appears, at first, to be a sort of funhouse of oddly-shaped, light-bending mirrors is actually an invitation to reflect on ourselves through different prisms — through the eyes of others.
The narrative of Artopia is not spelled in any of the literature, neither is it overtly displayed in context within the exhibit. As Brown points out, “We don’t outwardly express that narrative because we hope that it’s captured as you travel through.” We will go so far as to say that Artopia combines space travel, lost cultures, reflection, and healing through the eyes of those forward-thinking artists — many with deep roots in ancient cultures — who have contributed to the Artopia experience. “Connect your chakras,” says Dom Brown. And indeed we do!
An extension of the Artopia exhibit is the outdoor Art Park, which is the venue for Artopia After Dark, an adults-only social event that features an array of the Valley’s best performance artists. Artopia After Dark brings the experience to a whole different level of entertainment and appreciation, meriting a separate future review.