Nature Fights Back

At Davis Dominguez, one artists celebrates landscapes, while another illustrates the battle between man and nature

Most of the time, John Davis treats his sculptures with the utmost care, carving, sanding and polishing their wood and metal contours, and meticulously setting them up on pedestals in elegant galleries.

But once in a while, when Davis makes a sculpture, he ties it to a rope, hooks it up to the back of his pickup truck and drags it pell-mell through the desert.

The tattered remains of what he calls his "drag" sculptures are on display right now at Davis Dominguez Gallery, along with five of his finely crafted pedestal pieces. Both kinds of sculptures are made of material taken directly from nature--wood--as well as materials mediated by man--metal, concrete, cloth. The drag pieces are smaller, of course; mostly they're smallish blocks of wood, wrapped in burlap, with pieces of metal bolted onto the ends.

In the gallery, they're hung on the walls, their wood now battered, their metal bent and their cloth casings torn and frayed. We can tell what they looked like before their wild rides into the wilderness, because Davis includes before-and-after pictures. He also posts maps of the routes where he dragged them and pretty color pictures of the desert places where they were almost torn to bits.

Davis methodically charts the rides, drawing in red on the maps to show exactly where he and the art traveled, and recording in a text the length of the trip. Ranging from about two miles to eight miles long, most of the journeys in this drag group of six took place near the Chiricahua wilderness in Southeast Arizona.

"Cottonwood Creek Drag Element and Map" chronicles a two-mile trip for a piece that looks like a wooden book on a hinge, covered with cloth. The photo pictures it in a near-pristine landscape, on a dirt road lined with mesquites. "Lazy J Ranch Drag Element" is a curved block of wood with metal edges and a burlap casing. Its six-mile ride through remote grasslands--interrupted at one point when the road bumped up against a fenced cattle pen--did a number on the burlap. There's almost nothing left.

Besides being a lot of fun--the photo for "Lazy J" shows Davis sitting happily in the back of his truck somewhere in the middle of nowhere--the project has a point to make about the collision of humans and nature. Most of the time in these parts, it's nature that takes a beating at the hands of people and their machines. Bulldozers slice off hills, topple saguaros, chase off the animals and scrape the desert bare.

Here, with a little help from the artist, nature gets a chance to fight back, pummeling and almost destroying the invading object.

In fact, the whole show at Davis Dominguez Gallery delves into the often contentious relationship between nature and artifice. In Davis' sleek pedestal work, the wood and metal collaborate--or sometimes collide--in surprisingly lovely sculptures, made all the more alluring by the finely worked materials. The twists of rich coppery-brown metal in "Ash Roll," for instance, curve against the pale tan of the ash, the man-made and the natural working harmoniously together. At the same time, these pieces are like machines--the enemies of nature--with big wooden pegs hammered into swathes of metal. Alluring as they are, we can only guess what nefarious depredations they could wreak on the land, given the opportunity.

Davis' sculptures are paired with paintings by Josh Goldberg, retired education director at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Goldberg's 15 acrylics on canvas and paper are as lush and colorful as Davis' sculptures are sleek and simple. Pungent earth tones of red-brown and salmon leap out from the black shadows everywhere in these paintings. They're abstracted visions of imaginary landscapes, veering from the monumental to the microscopic.

If Davis deals with uneasy intersection between culture and nature, Goldberg unabashedly celebrates the landscape. His big energetic paintings conjure up soaring mountains, placid pools of water and the colors of limpid skies and brilliant flowers. "Lichen Tropicus," a buoyant composition in tropical lime, salmon and brown, could be an up-close and personal look at the jungle's plants, magnified many times over.

Yet none of these things--mountains, flowers or cells--are decisively sketched. Goldberg's paintings are less about a real place than they are about our idea of nature, the way the landscape looks inside our heads, long after we've left it behind and returned to the city.

"A Hero's Life," a 6-foot-square canvas, conjures up the kind of heroic landscape you might find in a Wagnerian opera: a fantastical place of high peaks and dark valleys. The painting is highly structured, with carefully defined color fields in salmon, pink, gold and black, but the paint is also loose and sumptuous, with wavy lines wiggling their horizontal way across the canvas.

The hand of the artist is everywhere in evidence. Sometimes he paints wet, sometimes dry. His wide brush leaves furrows of paint across the surfaces, and drips of color cascade downward. In the works on paper, the colors are even more vivid, if possible, pooling on the surface.

Quick brush lines of black paint look like Chinese calligraphy, and help endow all the landscapes with an Asian sense of the sacred. It's a sensibility that will be sorely needed, one day soon, in the still-pristine deserts pictured by Davis.