Capturing the Borderlands

Mario Morena Zazueta paints the Sonoran Desert's spiritual geography.

The skyscapes of southern Arizona and northern Sonora are usually on the plain side: simple swathes of pale cerulean stretching endlessly over the mountains and desert below.

Catch them on a stormy day, though, and everything changes. Deep blue-gray clouds roll in and obliterate the pale blue, and rain falls in charcoal-colored sheets. Sometimes, even before the rain stops, a bright shaft of sunlight pierces the darkness.

Nearly every painting in the show by the Sonoran artist Mario Moreno Zazueta at the University of Arizona Museum of Art captures this celestial drama. He evokes--perhaps better than any other painter of this region--the flashes of light that, say, color a desert mountain bright orange for five minutes at sunset, or streak a stormy sky with ephemeral lemon yellow.

In "Espacio (Space) #1," a 2003 oil on canvas, Zazueta has painted just such a scene: A yellow shaft breaks through a gray-blue sky. A familiar line of blue mountains curves across the horizon below, and the ochre grasslands in the foreground get another shot of bold yellow light. Anyone who's ever driven down Interstate 19 on a monsoon day has seen exactly this kind of spectacular light show. "Espacio #2," another oil on canvas from this year, has brilliant cerulean gleaming in a landscape of sage green and gray.

Hermosillo resident Zazueta is a professor of art at the University of Sonora. He's been painting some 35 years, and this show of nine paintings and 16 aquatint etchings covers just the last 20. His landscapes in this handsome show are not exactly representational; as curator Peter S. Briggs puts it, they construct not the Sonoran Desert as we know it, but rather create a new "personal and spiritual geography." Zazueta's best paintings conjure up the evanescent light of the borderlands; the room where the show is exhibited is dimly lit, but six landscapes along one wall have hardly any need of artificial lamps. They dispel the shadows with their own light.

Preoccupied with beauty and with paint, Zazueta's show is somewhat old-fashioned by current standards. (To get a glimpse of the new fashion, check out the university's MFA exhibition downstairs, with its flickering videos and huge couch-like sculptures in vinyl.) But he need make no apologies for these fine painterly explorations of rolling desert, golden grasslands and big skies.

"#1" and "#2," the most recent paintings, stain the canvas with thin but pungently colored paint. Four earlier works from the mid-'90s are more thickly painted, and they're darker and less representational. This more-abstracted group suggests the Sonoran landscape, too--the tip-off is the smudgy blue mountains hugging the distant horizon--but they also have architectural elements--walls, pillars--that frame and truncate the view of the natural world.

"Espacio #4," a 1994 oil on paper mounted on a board called fibracel, is a wonderful composition of geometric shapes. A dark rectangle--a building perhaps--intrudes into the horizon, and vertical planes of taupe, dark brown and blue divide up the sky. Hovering between foreground and background is a horizontal swathe of white-yellow light.

"Paisaje prehistórico (Prehistoric Landscape)," a large oil on canvas from 1998, is less about the sky than about what lies below. With a brown shadow slashing across a blazing rectangle of golden ochre, it suggests an ancient wall or even rooms buried beneath the surface of the earth. Underground it may be, but this painting still has the inevitable, reliable mountainous horizon line trailing across the top.

Less interesting are a couple of paintings from 2002 that are almost completely divorced from the land. "El verano (Summer)," an oil on paper mounted on fibracel, is painted the ice cream colors of the hot months--peach, lemon, blueberry--but it's unmoored from its geography, as slippery as ice cream tipped out of its cone.

Zazueta's small black-and-white aquatints are painterly pleasures. Rendered in lush black and white, these prints also imagine the Sonoran landscape. But this time around, the land is a surrealist's dream. Bubbles float across a starry night sky; a monkey--or a Cro Magnon man?--lays his weary head to rest on the desert floor. A tidily realist drawing of the land is clipped, trompe l'oeil style, to a black pool of nothingness.

In "De los días por venir (Of the Days to Come)," 1985, the familiar landscape of rolling desert, mountain peaks and big sky is seen through a series of arches. But the arches have a day-for-night thing going. The sun shines in three of them but stars twinkle in a black night sky in the fourth. Zazueta, master of light in darkness, this time pulls off both.