Shifting Perspectives

A manmade waterway stars in Debra Salopek's paintings at Davis Dominguez

When the painter Debra Salopek lived down in Sonoita, she was entranced by the region's cascading hills.

Over and over, she painted their folds, each overlapping the next, underneath the big skies of Southern Arizona. Stripped of vegetation, except for the occasional lonely mesquite, the hills became simple organic shapes in minimal compositions painted with masterly technique. Now that Salopek has transplanted herself to Cordova, N.M., on the road between Santa Fe and Taos, she's entranced by something new: an acequia.

A historical acequia, or irrigation ditch, runs through Salopek's rural property, according to Mike Dominguez, co-owner of Davis Dominguez Gallery. And her acequia's alluring curve, the light glinting off its waters, and the dark woods into which it flows, all run through her new suite of oil paintings on panel. They're on view in a three-person show at the gallery, along with Tim Murphy's light-filled abstract paintings and Fred Borcherdt's sleek sculptures in stone and wood.

Salopek repeatedly shifts the colors and light of her acequia, and switches her perspective, like a photographer taking multiple views of the same site. In "Acequia Madre," the ditch looms large, its steely blue-green waters taking up most of the space in a diptych just 9 inches by 34. In "Disappearing Line With a Yellow Sky," the most traditional landscape in the bunch, the acequia almost vanishes. It's become a tiny, shimmering line snaking its way through a big, dark landscape, filled with deep-green trees beneath and lemon clouds above.

In the soft and lovely "Acequia With Blue Light," the water glimmers a pale gray, flowing diagonally across the bottom of the painting, beneath dark trees and a delicate turquoise sky. In the big "The Bend," the acequia is huge again, taking up almost the whole of the vertical painting, about 5 feet by 3 1/2 feet. Its wide, watery swathe provides plenty of space for bravura painting of light-on-water; glowing green gives way to currents of white, yellow, brown and deep blue.

An alcove filled with lively plein-air sketches in oilstick offers a glimpse at the painter's real-world sources. Roughly painted in black, gray and white on paper, these studies are more realistic than the paintings they've launched. "Acequia Bend #1" and "#2" illustrate the lay of the Cordova land. The real-life acequia indeed winds through a thickly vegetated landscape; and its manmade "ditchness," modified in the paintings, readily comes through. You can see the sharp slope of its dug-out banks.

Salopek transforms the raw material of water, land and sky into paintings unlike anything other contemporary painters are making. She uses century-old techniques, deploying small brushes to smooth the thinnest possible sheets of oils and glazes onto panel. Like the best of the old European masters, she builds up so many nearly transparent layers that the paintings shine like jewels. (Dominguez swears he barely has to light them.)

She hasn't abandoned the Sonoita hills entirely. They make a return appearance in "Slumber," a tumble of hills under a deep-blue sky with clouds, and "Sonoita Hills," an assemblage of slopes colored ocher, umber and blue-green gray. The beautiful "Orange Hills" nearly abandons the coppery hills, giving them only a small slice at the bottom of the painting, the better to concentrate on clouds tinted in pinks and blues.

Painter Murphy goes further into abstraction than Salopek does, but he's every bit the colorist she is, if not more. In fact, his bright paintings, full of sunny yellows and pinks, make a real contrast to the forest greens of her northern New Mexico works. And while Salopek evokes a landscape, albeit simplified, Murphy prefers pure color and shape.

One of his big oils on linen, "National Geographic," even playfully discounts the whole idea of subject. The work has nothing to do with the magazine or the landscapes it pictures. Instead, it's a giant painting of squiggles colored the exact yellow of the magazine's famous covers. The amorphous shapes, painted over taupe, ocher and flashes of blue, wriggle diagonally across the huge swathe of cloth.

Likewise, "A Painter's Guide to Landscape I," a humorous small work on board, is all about color, not place. It conjures up the typical painter's palette, always a messy abstraction of mixed colors. This one features experimental patches of earth green and pink ochre, interrupted by small blobs of white and brown, ready for the painter's brush.

Murphy wields a big brush, energetically sweeping its bristles every which way across his canvases. Sometimes his paint is thick--"About Face" features a handful of bright, deep patches of color--and sometimes it's nearly liquid. The "National Geographic" squiggles cavort over paint that looks as though it's been dripped.

"Big Block" plays with a big box cube to investigate the effects of color on color. The cube is a delicious yellow, but it's painted over gray and ocher, and the undercolors peek through. Murphy concedes a bit to realism here, creating a space for the painted box to inhabit, but the background and lower ground are mere suggestions of wall and floor. Their broad expanses are mostly just an excuse to paint lovely colors, yellow and taupe over lavender and cerulean for the wall, a pale earth green over tan for the floor.

Borcherdt, an eminent sculptor, avoids color almost altogether. He makes his floor and pedestal pieces out of steel, stone and wood, much of it gathered right here in Arizona. The tones of his natural materials are natural: the red-brown of Arizona oak in the tall, needle-like "Pasarobles"; the tan and brown of the stones that anchor a curve of black steel in "Traverse Marker."

These sculptures are modernist and simple, but with their pairing of natural and human-made materials, they suggest, at least obliquely, the occupied land. Some of the works conjure up the tools abandoned in old Western homesteads. "Spur Marker," in steel and stone, is essentially one giant nail twisted around another. "Pasarobles" looks like a rusted implement left behind long ago.

These sculptures are light years from Salopek's paintings, but their tools have at least one thing in common with her acequia, a ditch dug into the earth. They meditate on the way humans have inhabited--or degraded--the earth.