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Up in the Air 

Under the Violet Sky at Etherton is a crayon-bright homage to the desert Southwest

Everywhere you look in Under the Violet Sky, you see rapturous depictions of the Southwest's beauties in hyped-up colors: blood-red sunsets, clouds shot through with lightning and cacti flaming orange. And, yes, skies in every shade of lavender and blue.

So it's a little surprising that in this Etherton exhibition by local powerhouses Gail Marcus-Orlen, Lynn Taber and William Lesch, one of the most beautiful pieces is an aerial view of an open-pit copper mine.

Before you think I've joined the anti-beauty, anti-landscape Rosemont forces, let me explain. Photog Lesch has long been known for his Southwest landscapes, concentrating on cloud-filled skies and deserts thick with saguaros. In 2006, he tried something different.

Piloted by his son in a small plane, Lesch flew over the Ray Mine at Kearny, Arizona. He aimed his camera straight down at the degraded earth and recorded the geometry that human industry imposes upon the land.

In "Arizona Working Landscape #177, near Ray, Arizona," a network of dirt roads and giant squares and circles—leaching pools, tanks, pits and God knows what else—spin out over the barren, beige soil. The pools are colored a bilious marine blue and the circles a poisonous Girl Scout green. But through Lesch's photographic intervention, the mine's auxiliary installations have metamorphosed into a Mondrian-like abstraction etched in dirt. The work is an archival inkjet print but it's so textured and beautifully colored that it seems more painting than photograph.

Elsewhere, Lesch is preoccupied by the Arizona that is still unmolested. For his black-and-white Grand Canyon series, he ventured down the Colorado River and took beautifully composed shots of canyon walls and caves. Etched with black lines, the rock walls frame small glimpses of the sky and the river, and dwarf the tiny humans on the sandy riverbanks. "Colorado River Panorama, view form Pancho's Cave, Grand Canyon, Arizona," 2010, is majestic in its symmetry. Shot from deep inside the shadowy cave, it opens up to the sunlight and a view of the distant river meandering past a precipice.

"Gates Pass Facing West, Timelapse Panorama Triptych," 2008, is a photo in three parts. It's 10 feet wide, long enough to mimic the sweeping horizon. Mountain peaks rise to the south, and the flat desert rolls into the distance, opening up to the sunset views so beloved by locals and tourist alike. Lesch ratcheted up the foreground colors to a surrealistic intensity and left the sunset colors in their natural neon state. Shot over the course of 48 hours in multiple exposures, the picture is a tech-y marvel that twice records the sun, once as it's rising and once as it's setting.

Pastel artist Lynn Taber is master of the skies. Earlier in her life she lived in an aerie high above Ventana Canyon, and it set the pattern for her art. Over and over and over she re-creates the magic of the Western skies, where yellow light breaks clouds of midnight blue, where pale pink settles just above the horizon.

"Time after Time" from 2014 is a small gem, one of the most delicate of Taber's 18 works here. A transparent cloud drifting across a subtle turquoise sky is tinted ever so slightly yellow. You almost expect a blue-gowned Virgin Mary to step through its billowing vapors. But this piece is one of just a few that pictures a single view. Like Lesch, Taber is showing work distinct from what she's done before, and like him she's edging closer to abstraction.

Instead of a single patch of sky, in most of the pictures she's stacked three separate sky images one atop the other, and she's made them even more abstract by drawing bold bands of color in between them—in pink, in canary yellow, in violet.

"As Time Goes By," from 2013, has a stormy Renaissance sky at top, as moody as Giorgione's "The Tempest." Graphic lines in red and cerulean—think Mondrian again—divide her tempest from the red-streaked sky below. A golden line separates the third and final sky, at bottom, from the others. Nothing is certain in these new works; some clouds seem to metamorphose into the waves of the sea, and one moment in time blends into another.

Gail Marcus-Orlen, a longtime local favorite, is what you might call the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Tucson artists. Her desert Southwest is every bit as magically realist as Macondo, the fantasy fictional town of the late Nobel laureate.

Marcus-Orlen's brushily painted oils on canvas are part landscape, part still life, part domestic interiors. They're filled with well-behaved chairs, windows, plants and the like, all of them moored to the floor and to reality. The landscapes seen through the windows all have proper trees and mountains. But floating through their tidy spaces are cowboy boots and hummingbirds, toy horses and apples, peacocks and hats. The paintings are cheerful, but the drifting objects seem full of meaning, bearing memories of past times and lost lives.

Even the colors in these dreamscapes leave reality behind, or at least dress it up. Marcus-Orlen's cacti and skies and flowers are painted in improbable shades of tangerine and lemon and peach, and every other hothouse color imaginable.

Marcus-Orlen had a major show, Magical Realism, at Pima Community College earlier this year with a few other artists, and she's included a few works from Pima here. One of these, "Cowboy Dreams #1," reads like a eulogy. Two empty chairs in a house are set below yellow arches open to the sky. A man's hat floats over the purple chair, and a woman's hat over the orange one. A hummingbird flutters from the man's chair to the woman's, where another bird is perched, and delivers an affectionate peck on the beak.

High above, two more birds proffer a leafy branch to another hummingbird who seems poised to fly away. Beyond them, in a violet sky, a pale moon is rising in the deepening twilight, and a golden sun sets in the fading orange light.

Under the Violet Sky: Works by William Lesch, Lynn Taber and Gail Marcus-Orlen

11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through Thursday, June 5

Free

Etherton Gallery135 S. Sixth Ave.

624-7370;ethertongallery.com

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