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Scenes of the Southwest 

Three artists capture glimpses of the beauty of the desert (both real and imagined) at Etherton

What's the best way to reproduce the shimmering light of the Sonoran Desert?

Well, if you're Jim Waid, you pick out all the colors of the blazing sun from your paint box, your yellows and oranges and ochers and golds, and you layer them thickly onto your canvas. Then you make them glisten and glow.

"Jaunt," a 2013 Waid acrylic at Etherton Gallery, shows exactly what the desert looks like when you squint at it in the noonday sun.

The palest yellows wiggle and shimmy across the center of the canvas, capturing the white heat of summer. But even then, when the light is radiant and fierce, the desert's brights are so strong that they pop out here and there in startling bursts. In the painting, a butterfly's wing beats orange-red; a pod rolls golden across the desert floor.

Waid paints the desert in every season and at every time of day, abstracting and magnifying its forms. But color is always paramount.

"Spring Light" has delicate lavenders above the season's first greens; in "September Song," another mixed media on paper, rich autumnal colors—purple, green, ruby red—turn the desert into a lush tapestry. And for the nighttime desert ("Liana's Lattice," a pigment print on paper) he's ratcheted up the Sonoran's siren hues by painting them on black. With the black paint edging every shape, the colors pop.

Perhaps the best painter of our desert's glories, Waid won a significant Arizona prize this spring: the Governor's Arts Award for Individual Artist. The prize citation praised the painter for "abstract work (that) reflects the magnificence of Arizona's plants and animals."

In a happy coincidence, Etherton had already planned to include Waid in a big springtime show of works inspired by nature. His desert celebrations get the lion's share of the gallery space, but the three-person show also exhibits sophisticated plant paintings by Jane Abrams and fantasy landscapes by Robert D. Cocke.

The show takes its title, Natural Seductions, from a frequent Waid remark about the sources of his art. An Oklahoman by birth, Waid has often recounted that he was "seduced" by the desert's beauty when he arrived in Tucson in the 1970s. He got an MFA at the UA and taught at Pima Community College on the westside, when the college was new and the desert all around it was undisturbed.

In a catalog for a show at Pima in 2008, he wrote, "I found my artistic voice in the arroyos, hills and canyons surrounding Tucson. The early morning hikes down a wash, the sun breaking over a hill lighting up vegetation with psychedelic halos."

Waid has 40 works big and small in Natural Seductions, nearly all of them produced just since 2011. His path down his imaginary arroyos takes him in two different directions: while none of the paintings are realist, some hew closer to reproducing the lineaments of the real world. You can recognize local landmarks in "Along the Tanque Verde" and "Sabino Canyon Autumn"; even so, these paintings pulse and vibrate, Waid-style.

Others push more adventurously into abstraction, fracturing the real world into a kaleidoscope of organic shapes and colors. Wings and pods and prickers and petals are magnified to gigantic size and fly across the surface.

"Jester," a jazzy acrylic on canvas, is one of the best of these. Leaves and pods and other Miró-like biomorphic forms flutter atop vertical stripes in green and gold. In an ink-black background, a sky if you will, a blue sphere spins and red diamonds dance.

In "Liana," the biggest painting in the show, jiggly white stripes careen over a black underpainting. Bits of segmented stems tumble down over a thick, textured surface. A fantasy dragonfly, with a red head and blue plumes surrounded by boxy yellow rays, ascends into this cheerful place. There's even a path back to the real world: a black curve leads to a pink-and-blue agave, anchoring the scene in the Sonoran Desert.

Jane Abrams, an Albuquerque artist who taught painting for years at the University of New Mexico, is also seduced by the Southwest landscape. But her colors are different from Waid's, subtle where his are vibrant. And her adopted state has more water than his; she loves to paint places where water and land meet.

"Los Poblanos Pond," an oil on linen from 2007, is a beauty. A delicate symphony of earth greens from light to dark, the glistening painting depicts a pond infested by water lilies. The lily pads may be invasive but they're lovely to look at. Abrams has drawn them delicately, carefully tracing out flat leaves held aloft by stems shooting up out of the water. Pond and sky are tinted a subtle cerulean blue, and the trees on the distant shore are a paler version of the lily pads' earth greens.

Abrams has 10 works in the show, six of them big oils on luscious linen and four small paintings on deliciously thick handmade paper. Two of these works on paper, "Nightshades" and "Snow Field," are little treasures, opalescent abstractions of plant stems embedded in paint that glows a soft white. They could be cousins of Waid's two spare "Garden Entrance" studies.

If there's a certain parity between Abrams' and Waid's works, Cocke's are the outliers. His tiny Western landscapes are painted horizontally in oil on panels; some, like "Eight West," are smaller than 4 inches high and 10 inches wide. Painted with great attention to detail, most have the classic tripartite Western composition of big sky, distant horizon and foreground of sweeping country.

But Cocke's ironic painterly musings veer sharply away from reality. Their sculpted trees could have come from Versailles, and their clouds are too perfect, too regular, for nature. They tiptoe at the edge of fantasy; others, though, head full bore into surrealism.

In "Twenty Till," Andy Warhol's Campbell's tomato soup can takes the place of a tree; it's joined in its fantasy forest by a decaying orange, a tumbling oil derrick and a tourist teepee, all signs of depredations on the West. And when you peer at the distant background in this miniature, you'll see that the wilderness itself has been replaced. Oh, a few trees remain, but instead of the mountains' purple majesty? There's a city of towering spires, a landscape that's been seduced not by beauty but by creeping urbanization.

More by Margaret Regan

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