From living canvases to provocative burlesque shows, these Valley artists aim to turn you on, push your buttons and challenge your view of what 'art' really means.
by Stephanie Berger
State Press Magazine, published on Thursday, February 2, 2006
A scattering of regular patrons mills about the dimly lit room, stopping to chat at the edge of the small stage. Some wander into the side room to view the black and white photos of women in g-strings and oil paintings of two nude women in seductive embraces.
The Paper Heart gallery is calm on this third Thursday of the month. This is the night where the artists who currently have their work on display at the gallery come together, chatting casually at the beer and wine bar. Chatting with them is the gallery's owner, who seems part artist, part rocker with his straight, dark, shoulder-length hair and his bright red jacket.
It would almost be easy to miss the artist working in the corner of the gallery's main room. He examines his equipment briefly, looking over his airbrush, paintbrushes and dozens of different colors of paints. Finally, choosing a white vial, he attaches it to his airbrush and turns to his canvas.
"You can take your clothes off now," he says.
The slim redhead nods and removes her top and bra. She sits in the gallery, naked from the waist up, while the artist begins to spray a light mist of paint over her nipples.
Mark Greenawalt is a body painter. He began taking art lessons at age 9, later sketching and doing oil paintings, and even dabbling in singing and songwriting in Nashville, Tenn. But Greenawalt, a 38-year-old father, husband and vice president of a counsulting engineering firm, found his hobby and passion around five years ago.
He has been painting naked women ever since.
"This is a way for me to really be on the edge of a new frontier, and to help pioneer an art form," Greenawalt says.
But The Paper Heart gallery is no stranger to innovative artists. Stop by on another night of the week and perhaps you'll meet Christy Zandlo, a 27-year-old ballet instructor by day and burlesque dancer by night. Zandlo is a founding member of Scandalesque, a burlesque dance troupe that aims to revive the art form that is taking off in other big cities across the country.
"We do the typical feather fan dance, and there are stripteases," says Zandlo, who goes by the name Pyra Sutra and does tricks with fire for the show. "We don't get nude; it's classy. It's just a tease. We get down to bras and booty shorts, and there's a few numbers involving pasties and a g-string, but it's cute and funny."
The Paper Heart in Phoenix isn't the only place that these erotic artists call home -- their performances and work are featured in shows and galleries throughout the city.
Greenawalt does live body paintings at the Alwun House's annual Exotic Art Show, and Zandlo and crew are frequent performers at local venues.
But what ties these artists together is that Phoenix provides a prime environment-to-be for their cutting edge, boundary-pushing, taboo arts.
"People are developing an interest in the synergy of this city, and what's going on in this area," says Paper Heart owner Scott Sanders. "They want to see more of the arts, and this city really freakin' needs it. Watching Phoenix get to this point is just amazing."
Party Like It's 1949
It's Friday night at Ain't Nobody's Bizness, the gay and lesbian bar known as The Biz in the local lingo. Tonight's theme is "Filthy Gorgeous," and that's exactly what its customers are. With an assortment of naughty Catholic schoolgirls and 80's glam rockers. And with strobe lights spinning and "You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)" pumping, the night's set to be an entertaining one.
Enter Scandalesque, the burlesque dance troupe with naughty-yet-innocent fun in mind. With the house lights up, the five women prance on stage in their tiny green silk negligees, their black fishnets and short shorts drawing all kinds of howls and catcalls from the crowd.
"Who's got plans for a bed for three this Valentine's Day?" leader of the pack Zandlo asks, her long, blonde ponytail bobbing as she skips from one audience member to another for a response.
Zandlo's moves come from years of professional ballet training when she was young. But she says she never wanted to be a ballerina. Her favorite musical growing up was "Cabaret," and she says she was always attracted to seductive dance.
"I always loved the cabaret and burlesque dances," Zandlo says. "I loved the showgirls, the whole glamour-and-glitz, and diamonds, and scantily-clad women, and naughty and pretty and glamorous all at the same time."
Zandlo says that a couple of years ago, she was hired to do a Vegas-style showgirls performance at local casinos. When the deal for the performances fell through, she says she finally decided to pursue her dream.
The result is Scandalesque, a burlesque show that celebrates fun, fantasy and the female form.
Popular in the 1930s through the 1960s, burlesque is a form of entertainment that involves variety acts, comedy, singing, dance and striptease.
"The 70s killed burlesque because with the sex revolution, there was nothing to hide," Zandlo says. "Now, strippers make more money, and they're less talented."
Scandalesque's performance involves each woman assuming a character and doing skits and dances based on that persona. There's Fontayne, the glamour queen, and Shynasty, who plays coy and devious. The women, who are all professional dancers, coordinate their own routines and even work on their own costumes, embellishing bras and corsets with rhinestones and beads.
All this attention to detail is praiseworthy, but it's hard to focus on when the women strut their stuff on the floor at The Biz. As Zandlo and company do kicks and bends, covering their torsos suggestively with huge, white-feathered fans, they give the audience occasional peeks of their silver, star-shaped-pasty-covered nipples.
And the crowd really gets wild when one dancer, through a series of suggestive dance moves, spins and twirls, unwraps herself from a full body gauzy covering, revealing a sparkling brown bra and shorts underneath.
Zandlo says she learned many of the tricks of the trade from 27-year-old valley burlesque dancer Lolita Haze. Haze, whose stage name comes from Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a young nymphet, prefers to keep her real name a secret.
Unlike Zandlo, Haze never had professional dance training, but she was always interested in the thin line between sensual dancing and stripping. She performed at the Miss Exotic World competition in 2002, and has been dancing burlesque ever since.
"I was hooked," Haze says.
Haze differentiates her style of burlesque, called classical or traditional, from the neo-burlesque that many dancers practice today.
"Classical burlesque is in the spirit of the golden years of the 40s and 50s, and focuses a lot on beauty and grace," Haze says. "There is no story telling, just me prancing around on stage removing my clothing. Neo-burlesque performers are storytellers. It's less dance and more performance."
Haze says neo-burlesque is helping to expand the art form and arouse interest in a contemporary audience, while the traditional form preserves the history of the dance.
But either way, Haze adds, burlesque is more about entertainment than sex.
"I don't set out to have my acts tingle people in their naughty spots," she says. "I set out to entertain and tingle their imaginations."
A Living Canvas
Mark Greenawalt has never been a dancer, but he's probably painted a few. He says he's painted more than 300 works on bodies ranging from Playboy models to sci-fi convention volunteers to pregnant bellies.
His works range from a full-back painting of a butterfly in every color of the rainbow to a full frontal portrait of Gene Simmons from Kiss, the rockstar's black-and-white painted nose ending right above the model's pierced naval, his bright-red tongue darting downward and ending, suggestively, at the edge of her pubic region.
But Greenawalt insists that his artwork is meant to be taken more for art value than for shock value.
"I know this stuff crosses the border of being erotic, but it's been received in general as art and not pornography," he says. "It's adult in nature, but yet it's not promiscuous."
Greenawalt says he has worked with a few porn stars as models, including Cheyenne Silver, a Vivid Entertainment model and former Penthouse Pet of the Month. But he adds that he turned down an offer to work on a porn movie set because that's not the direction he wants his artwork to take. He prefers to dabble in body painting without pay, and what money he does make is at live, promotional shows put on by companies such as Playboy and Maxim.
He also works at many sci-fi conventions, doing futuristic paintings with themes from comic books and movies such as "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars."
Greenawalt says that he has done some body paintings on male chests, but he has never done a full-body nude painting on a man. He says that all of his commissioned works have been females, and that the ideas he has come up with independently have always centered around the female form.
It seems that there are more people, both females and males, that find the nude female form attractive than there are that find the nude male form attractive," says Greenawalt. He adds that he has seen very little body painting work on naked males, but that he thinks under the right circumstances, he might add some nude male paintings to his portfolio.
Although Greenawalt's job seems glamorous, he says it's hard work. Full body paintings can take up to 5 hours, and can involve both him and his models getting into embarrassing positions, crouching or lifting their legs for some up-close detailing. The business also has its share of challenges, such as painting a body while taking into account that its curves will affect what the image looks like from different angles. Also, because skin is very elastic, Greenawalt says that perfect circles painted while a woman is lying down can turn into ovals when she stands up.
"You have to be flexible and just go with it," he says.
And being flexible may be the key to Greenawalt's success, as his artwork is certainly perceived differently by everyone. He says his two sons don't like it; the 5-year-old thinks it's "yucky" and the 12-year-old does his best to pretend he isn't curious. The boys' mother is also uneasy about her husband's hobby.
"My wife is very supportive, but I think she would be very happy if I gave this up tomorrow, if not today," Greenawalt says.
In addition, while Greenawalt says he has never met with too much criticism, his work does present a topic for feminist debate and discourse.
School of Interdisciplinary Studies senior lecturer Tanya Augsburg says that while her work focuses more on women's self-representation in art, a student in her Interdisciplinary Approaches to Contemporary Art class once gave a presentation on Greenawalt's work. She adds that the students in the class were fascinated by the work and wanted to learn more.
"I do not endorse his work, but I understand its popularity," Augsburg says. "The female body has always been considered a work of art, often an erotic one, and our culture is obsessed with skin."
Augsburg says that while she thinks Greenawalt's work is an objectification of women, that the bigger problem is that women in today's culture are willing to become objectified. "I cannot condemn his work, because it is an expression of our culture, something larger than him," she says.
Augsburg also says that she'd like to see more diversity among the female bodies he paints, because not all women look like models.
But Greenawalt says that at many events he's done, where he offers to paint volunteers for free, women line up for the experience.
"I'm surprised by how many people say they would never do it, but I say, 'Are you sure? We can do it right now,' and you can sense that they want to."
Phoenix's Taboo Future
It's past 1 a.m. and the Paper Heart gallery is shutting down. Someone cuts the main lights, and mutes the hard rock playing on the stereo.
Owner Scott Sanders says that while it may seem cutting edge, the Paper Heart tries to cater to all kinds of artists and types of performances, from film and comedy to music and multicultural arts.
"I try to add diversity to the space," he says. "We don't cater to just one crowd."
Sanders says he doesn't necessarily see his gallery as being taboo because other galleries in the area have also had body painting, burlesque dancing and other controversial performances and displays.
"There's quite a bit of activity happening here along Grand Avenue, and the more that's going on, the more people have an interest in the arts and culture happening downtown," he says.
But he adds that he doesn't see these art forms as being pornographic or too risque.
"Some close-minded individuals don't know what pornography really is," he says. "They need to open their mind a little bit."
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chelsea Kent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Local body painter Mark Greenawalt says he enjoys pioneering the art form in the Valley. He created this painting using both an airbrush and traditional paintbrushes.
Chelsea Kent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
The woman of the Scandalesque burlesque troupe perform at "Filthy Gorgeous."