B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
IN THESE BOOM days, as the real land around us gets churned up and ravaged by earth movers and 'dozers, artificial images of the land in a pristine state increasingly find their way into the galleries.
Call it politics, call it nostalgia or call it coincidence, the fact is that our rapidly disappearing landscape is providing Arizona's artists with inspiration. At the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson paper artist Catherine Nash is exhibiting handmade paper caves that shelter us the way we imagine the earth once effortlessly did. Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay of Prescott, over at the Tucson Museum of Art, display the earth's sticks and stones as sculpture.
In two other current shows, a couple of Tucson artists use the more conventional media of photography and painting as prisms to examine the land. But photographer Sean Justice, showing in a one-person exhibition at Bero Gallery, has intentions that are anything but conventional. He has cut up the film he's shot of mountains and deserts and reassembled the pieces into abstracted kaleidoscopic collages that challenge the western landscape tradition. Painter Patsy Donahue, in a one-person show at Temple Gallery, comes closest of all these artists to the traditional use of the landscape as metaphor for human preoccupations. She looks at eastern woodlands through the uncertain filter of memory, painting her forest glades and streams in emotional colors that have more to do with her psychic inner-scape than they do with a botanist's realism.
Justice, a freelance photographer who frequently works for the Tucson Weekly and other local publications, has until now been better known for his fine black-and-white photography. More than a year ago at Central Arts Collective he exhibited tiny black-and-white pictures of the Korean countryside, small elegant prints of sloping hills and shadowed trees that suggested an intense spirituality rooted in the land. His new work, appropriately titled Ten Meditations, retains tiny jewel-like images of spiritually charged plants and rocks, but in most ways it's a departure. For one thing, Justice is now working with color. For another, having mastered the high-quality print, he's decided to dismantle it. Though he has intentions far more benign than those of the bulldozers tearing up the actual land, Justice tears up his materials.
He first off-shoots slide film of the land formations so familiar to Tucson dwellers. Most of his images look like bits and pieces of Mount Lemmon, from the saguaro forest at its lower elevations, to the grasslands around Molino Basin, on up to the rock outcroppings near Lookout Point. When he's got these pictures safely on his film, he uses sharp fabric cutters to slice them up. After that, he takes transparent packing tape and puts the pieces back together again, not in their original configuration, but in an abstract puzzle of his own design. The final print on the wall, unlike his former lovely prints, reveals his process: You can see the slashes and seams and tape lines bisecting the surface.
"Meditation No. 14" is typical. The original picture is a color shot of gray-beige mountain rock, with a bit of scrubby grass at its base, a blue western sky beyond it. Justice made three more prints of the same picture and taped the four pieces together as mirror images of each other, two of them right-side up, two of them upside-down. The result is a weird, cross-like shape that floats like an icon in a sea of azure. Altered, the landscape is converted into an object that invites meditation.
If Justice is getting restless with the photographic convention of fine printing, Donahue demonstrates in her Remembered Landscapes show that she is eminently respectful of the painting tradition. She delights in her oils on canvas, using the color fields of her wilderness scenes to revel in thick painted strokes of buttery yellow, salmon pink and pine green. Her works are the kind of paintings that on close inspection seem to be mostly about paint and color, and that only from a distance coalesce into evocative imagery.
Donahue occasionally deviates from her pure nature themes to paint human figures, but they're never far from the sheltering boughs of the woods. A woman is asleep on a bed by an open window full of billowing plants in "Spring Sleep"; in the tellingly titled "Inside or Out" another woman is on a chair half-in and half-out of an open doorway scattered with blowing leaves.
But mostly, Donahue sticks with nature in the raw. A set of three small acrylics on paper called "Ground Cover I, II and III" muses on the artistic possibilities of the leaf litter of the forest floor. Davis and Asay, over at TMA, convert the leaf litter they find into glued and fired leaf sculptures. Donahue is content with the translation power of paint. She reduces the real-life complexity of leaf debris, trees and sky into a shimmering orange-yellow glow, overlaid with brown line and a row of vertical orange trunks, against a deep-green canopy and an ochre sky.
Sean Justice's Ten Meditations continues through November 25 at Bero Gallery, 41 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 792-0313. Patsy Donahue's Remembered Landscapes continues through November 22 at Temple Gallery, 330 S. Scott Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and through first intermission during performances in the theatre. For more information call 884-4875.
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