Painting By Wonders

Mike Stack's Painted Deserts Are Landscapes Fantastical By Nature.

AT AFTERNOON'S END, the desert takes on its deepest colors: purple, navy, rose, salmon. Shots of orange and yellow, the last gleams of light, streak across the deepening clouds.

But even the sunset Sonoran doesn't come close to the rich hues of Mike Stack's West of Now paintings. His desert is intensely, even strangely colored, so much so that Davis Dominguez Gallery has been obliged to light one painting in the suite, "Standing with Purple and Green" with no fewer than three lights. As divorced from nature as his colors are--purple replacing earth green, hot pink supplanting tan--his plant shapes are likewise bizarre. In fact, Stack's series of 10 oils on canvas pictures an altogether fantastical desertscape. Giant prickly pear pads are purple or blue or reddish-pink, their fruits swaying on high in hot pink. Other desert vegetation curves hyperkinetically into green, red and blue spirals, or metamorphoses into giant purple ovals.

The Western skies likewise go nature one better in Stack's hands. Some are close-to-natural royal or purple, but others are khaki or lemon-yellow. Their clouds divide up into gay circus stripes or froth over into unnatural orange.

Figures in a landscape are a staple of traditional art, and Stack duly places impassive people among his desert cacti. But again everything is out of joint. His people's faces are as luridly colored as the plants, striped and mottled in purples and pinks. And the desert plants tower over them, or try to crowd them out of the picture plane. In "Volume and Twilight," a young boy wrestles with a giant purple and pink prickly pear, while a young girl looks on. "Prying with Orange" has a pair of figures overtaken by a monstrous fuchsia pod. They're struggling heroically with the plant, wooden levers in their hands, but their actions are ambiguous. Are they trying to wrest the pod from its bed of purple ovals, or are they actually rowing on a strange desert sea?

"Volume and Twilight" also suggests an analogue between ocean and desert: its base of spirals are either desert plants or waves in the sea. "Nocturnal Reprieve" similarly pictures figures with sticks--or oars--grappling with a giant pink-red cactus. The whole scene is set upon a row of pointy shaves: are they purple mountains' majesty or waves of water lapping by the shore?

What to make of these elusive narratives? An easterner who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the nation's oldest art school, Stack registers an outsider's awe of the desert's strangeness. Certainly a painting like "Fruit and Stones" pays homage to the Sonoran's beauty. A lovely yellow light pierces its sky's dark clouds; two figures below seem sheltered, rather than threatened, by the prickly pears that surround them.

Other paintings suggest a correlation between the human psyche and the land's drama. The prickly pear pads in deep purple mirror the downcast mood of the disconsolate woman in "Arms Folded." The boy in "Standing with Cosmic Shirt," dressed in joyous T-shirt spirals, seems at one with the khaki sky and the sunset's rainbow stripes. In some cases, Stack seems to be imagining a thornless desert as child's playground, its shapes as novel and as lovable to his painted kids as the Giant Peach was to James.

Stack is a painter in total control of his materials, but his paint application is as individual as his palette and subjects. His big paintings, some stretching to 5 feet by 6 feet, get a loose undercoating of paint diluted by medium. The surfaces, though, are highly textured, their thick swathes of color patches painted side by side, in a kind of rough-hewn pointillism. Stack paints deliberately, stroke by stroke, each steady mark of the brush giving the paintings a feeling of stillness. Paradoxically, his huge stolid shapes add up to rhythmic compositions, their undulating outlines rolling across the canvas with the abandon of a dust devil.

West of Now, a show of new paintings by Mike Stack, continues through Saturday, June 10, in the Salon at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. Also on view are Thomas Chapin paintings and drawings in the Alcove, and a gallery mix in the main room. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 629-9759.