Relationship to the Sublime

Two varying exhibits show the beauty of nature—and the damage to it caused by man

Tucson painter Nancy Tokar Miller travels frequently, often going west to Asia, where she translates jungles and lagoons into gorgeous abstracted landscapes.

Not long ago, she flew—twice—in a helicopter over Hawaii, zigzagging over the pristine north side of the island of Molokai. Much of Hawaii, of course, is overdeveloped, littered with tourist hotels, fast-food joints and all the other raffish construction of modern life.

But judging by the evidence of Tokar Miller's Hawaii paintings in the exhibition East/Pacific/West: Confluence at Pima Community College, Molokai is not. Here, lush green vegetation still covers the giant cliffs that drop down to the sea, and the ocean thrashes pure white foam against clean beaches.

"Over Molokai," a 2011 acrylic on canvas, offers a dizzying view of the island from way up in the wild blue yonder. Far below, in a corner, is a tiny cliff, the red of its rock muted by distance and the humid air. Up at the top, a lemon-yellow nose cone edges into the picture, letting us know just how high in the sky the painter is. Past this poetically rendered airplane, the pale-gray sky drops down and merges almost imperceptibly with the deeper blue-gray of the sea below.

As always, Tokar Miller uses layers of paint so thin that they almost stain the canvas. Yet her colors are immeasurably deep and rich. "Coastline, Molokai," another 2011 acrylic on canvas, is densely colored in greens and blues of every description. A long sweep of cliffs is crazily angled along the whole left side of the painting, giving you the impression that Tokar Miller's pilot was doing some risky sideways moves up there. The cliffs' plants go from deep, shadowy maroon-green to medium-green to light-spring-green. A streak of bright yellow sunlight careens down toward the blue sea.

Tokar Miller has long followed a Zen aesthetic, simplifying what she sees in the real world. But each of these paintings—from the most representational, "Palms/Ginger," depicting nearly every frond in a single palm, to the most abstract, "Reef Pools," reducing the lush islands to shape and color—powerfully create a sense of place.

The other two artists in this lovely show do the same thing, but they conjure up Hawaii through fiber. Claire Campbell Park is a distinguished weaver who "paints" with high-quality strands of linen. A longtime professor at Pima, she took a sabbatical in Hawaii in 2010, and in five richly colored tapestries, she, too, conveys its natural beauty.

Her abstract weavings are tall and skinny, and their rows of horizontal bands can be read as a schematic representation of the landscape. If Tokar Miller sees Hawaii from up in the air, Campbell Park has the ant's-eye view down on the earth. She's on the horizon line, and her bands of color suggest, in descending order, sky, sea and land.

"Lava/Vog/Sky" is a typically radiant work, filled with twilight colors. The colored bands shift from deep violet at the top to yellow and soft orange in the lower sky, just above the blue-violet sea. Finally, they turn the dark brown of the earth, already slipping into night.

"In the Reef; Wrasse," from 2011, is less an abstracted landscape than a pure celebration of Hawaii's gloriously tropical colors. It evokes the bright flora and fauna on land and sea in orange, peach and pink, and a gorgeous band of canary yellow.

Campbell Park's meditative works are meant to evoke the holiness of the unspoiled land. By contrast, the show's third artist, Mary Babcock, makes art out of the debris that's despoiling that land. The head of the fiber department at the University of Hawaii (who earned her master's of fine arts the UA), Babcock collects fishing nets and other trash that wash up on Hawaiian shores, as well as similar rubbish along the Columbia River in Oregon.

She weaves this junk into bristly wall-hangings. The nets and plastics have surprisingly delicate colors, "softened over time by the water," as she puts it: pale seafoam and grays, punctuated by occasional flares of orange. But these fake fibers are not well-behaved like the linen threads that Campbell Park uses. They're prickly and unruly, and when Babcock hangs the weavings on the wall, the strands jut out, wriggling and swaying in the breeze.

Their movement suggests not only the crashing of waves, but the creatures swimming through them—the elements of the environment this sea trash puts at risk.

Over at Davis Dominguez Gallery, two artists also seek to convey a sense of place.

Duncan Martin is an accomplished landscape painter at the beginning of an enterprise he's calling the 58 in 58 Painting Project. He intends to make paintings of all 58 U.S. national parks. For this inaugural show, he has already tackled Yellowstone, Canyonlands and Rocky Mountain National Park.

His paintings are near-realist, painted in a loose, appealing style, with thick patches of oil paint brushily applied. They capture nature's unabashed beauty: We see sublime snow-capped mountains, and canyon gorges that go on for miles. These classic views are near-clichés, so often have they been pictured, going all the way back to the 19th century.

The more-interesting works go for a small detail or an unexpected angle. "Winter, Slate" is a tiny beauty, with a deep gray ravine breaking up a field of snow. The lovely "Winter High Road" captures mud season in the mountains. Beneath a golden, glowing sky, a rutted road snakes its way in from the distance.

A view of Yellowstone, rendered first as a study and then as a finished painting, delights, because the complicated mountainscape has been reduced to a series of rhythmic shapes, painted rust and green. Martin is a master of light, and these Yellowstones are illuminated at the center by a flash of brilliant yellow ochre.

In the face of all this natural beauty, Barbara Jo McLaughlin delivers an environmental warning, keyed in to the doomsday year of 2012. Her floor sculptures, she says, were inspired by her recent studies of Mayan iconography and a road trip into Honduras, where she learned of land-damaging practices that helped doom the high Mayan culture a millennium ago. Some works lined with ceramic death heads drive home the point.

Her works are parables in wood and steel, drenched in metaphors that are a little heavy-handed. "From Myth to Rational Thought" juxtaposes a sphere made of sumac branches (the natural world) with a harsh geometric construction of planks (the artificial world). "Layers: History and Humanity on the Brink" has a teetering pile of thinly sliced pieces of lumbered wood, poised to fall off a solid mesquite block.

The real message of 2012, she says, is not that the world is going to end, but that the world still has a shot at redemption, if only its inhabitants would start living in harmony with nature. Paired with Martin's celebratory paintings of our nation's greatest beauties, McLaughlin's sculptural warnings silently make their point: If we don't shape up—if we don't stop covering Hawaii with strip malls, or keep a pipeline from scarring Montana's slopes, or prevent a mine from despoiling Southern Arizona—we will lose not only nature, but our relationship to the sublime.