Light, Air and Water

Nature scenes star in this three-artist exhibit at Etherton Gallery

In the summer of 2010, Joe Forkan landed in the rugged northwest of Ireland.

He was in County Mayo, doing an arts residency in the village of Ballycastle, a remote outpost facing north onto the Atlantic. Nearby, at Céide Fields, steep cliffs drop down hundreds of feet to crashing waves. The big skies over the sea were damp with rain and mist one minute, and opening onto pale yellows and pinks the next. And all around him were the patchwork fields of rural Ireland, geometries in every possible shade of green.

It was not long before the stormy skies, the sea and the hills started making their way into his paintings. Brushing thick strokes of oil paint onto gessoed paper, he chronicled the ever-changing weather at the edge of the island, the light breaking through storm clouds, the glimmers on the sea, the sunlight on the bogs.

Working rapidly to stay one step ahead of the erratic weather and wild winds, he painted small, and gave the paintings poetic names that conjured up the essence of the place. "On the Bogs" is a tiny square of sky hovering over land low on the horizon. "North Atlantic Cloud" is a vertical, with a cloud so big that it dwarfs the earth below.

"West of Downpatrick I" is a perfect evocation of the Irish coast, with hills sloping down to the sea, and narrow fingers of land jutting into the water. Touches of lavender color the waves; clouds gather darkly over the cerulean sky. It's unclear whether sun or showers will win out.

Here and there, the grasses on the bogs are yellow-brown, unexpected in moist Ireland; Forkan reports in an account of his Irish summer that the straw-colored bogs reminded him of his native Southwest. (Born in Tucson, where he once worked as a freelance illustrator for the Tucson Weekly, Forkan is now an art professor at California State University at Fullerton.)

The golden tones reappear in "South of Ballycastle," a depiction of the countryside a few miles south of the ocean. This one's another classic Irish view. Dark-green hedges divide the rolling farmland into squares and triangles. Above, the restless sky is changing from dark to light and back again, its alterations faithfully conveyed by equally restless and dueling strokes of color—violet, blue, white, pink.

Forkan has always had an energetic way with the brush; a few years ago, he made a wonderful series of loosely painted Monet-like works depicting the light outside of his studio windows in Santa Ana, Calif. In these Irish works, his brushstrokes are freer and more joyful than ever.

On close inspection, his quick darts of color appear to be pure abstraction. Only when you step away do they coalesce into the familiar lineaments of nature.

Now hanging in the first gallery at Etherton, Forkan's Irish work is the opening note of a sumptuous three-person show, This Land, This Sea. All three artists—Forkan, photographer Lisa M. Robinson and painter Nancy Tokar Miller—are entranced by light, air and water.

Beyond the small gallery, the big room opens up into unobstructed visions of the sea. At left, on the far wall, are Tokar Miller's serene paintings of the Pacific at Molokai. At right, Robinson's photos of the ocean off the coast of Maine alternate between crashing breakers and retreating waters.

Working on the other side of the North Atlantic from Forkan, Robinson photographed the mesmerizing movements of the sea, almost always on days of moody weather. A native of the South, Robinson longed for the sea when she moved to Tucson a few years ago. So she took an arts residency by the ocean in Maine. She began the Oceana project by sitting for a whole day in a cove, watching the relentless back-and-forth of the waves, and the slower shifting of the tides. Photographing in film with a 4-by-5-view camera, she sometimes layered multiple exposures on a single sheet of paper.

The results are lovely and painterly, with the billows of the sea and clouds colored in grays and whites, here and there tinged with subtle sea greens. But the works are hardly calm. "Crescendo" is a tumultuous rendering of a wave rising up, white spray flying, on the verge of tumbling back down. Deep green water lies beyond the wave, with another row of white breakers; a distant band of dark gray goes murky at the horizon, merging with the paler sky.

In "Elegy," right next to "Crescendo," the Atlantic is in another mood. The ocean is quiet, but only momentarily. The waves have flattened out, and a dark line neatly and precisely separates sea from sky. A lovely pink light glows softly in the sky. But the clouds above are threatening. And in "Surge," the waves are rushing out again.

Elsewhere, in the Great Lakes, Robinson photographed the lake water frozen into ice. The shapes of the wind-blown chunks are fantastical. In "Convergence," they mimic the pattern of the currents, as though the roiling lake water froze in a single instant, the ice capturing its movements like the lava permanently preserved the people of Pompeii trying to escape the volcano. The ice has cracked and fractured in "Etching," sketching out black designs over white. In "Fault," blocks of ice are piled like rocks.

Robinson came to national attention for an earlier series, Snowbound, exhibited at Etherton four years ago. The snow photos were also gorgeous, but they had something the ocean pictures do not. Nearly every snow scene had a hint of human interaction with nature: a red pole thrust into a drift, a chain-link fence black against the white snow. Robinson's Oceana is nature unadorned, but with its changes and repetitions, its times and tides, it is irresistibly metaphorical. It's almost impossible to look at these pictures—or the ocean itself—and not think of life cycles, and of human change and continuity.

Tokar Miller's south seas are balmier than the wild northern waters that Forkan and Robinson navigated. The lovely "Molokai" trio is an ethereal look at the waters of Hawaii in different lights.

Reflecting different times of day—or different weather patterns—"Molokai (Rose)" is cast as a Homeric rosy dawn; in "Molokai (Gold)," sky and sea glitter and shimmer. "Molokai (Blue)" lends the scene a twilight hue. The rocks in these simple compositions seem to be floating, heavy but weightless at the same time.

Painted in acrylic on paper, the paintings are small by Tokar Miller standards—just 27 inches high by 23 inches wide.

A few of the large sea paintings here—"Over Molokai" and "Reef Pools"—appeared in Tokar Miller's recent Hawaii show at Pima Community College West. (See "Relationship to the Sublime," March 1.) But many others are new, conjuring up locations as far-flung as Tikal (an ancient Mayan site in the Guatemalan jungle) and Japan.

The peripatetic Tokar Miller often travels to Asia, where the Zen aesthetic complements her pared-down near-abstractions. The beautiful "Kyoto Morning, Jizo-In" here is a paean to yellow light, and to Asian simplicity. A red square floats at upper left, balancing bands of canary yellow at top and bottom. Pale beige at the top, and brown below, suggest a window framing a view of the dawn.

As always with Tokar Miller's work, the painting seems almost to have made itself, its artful composition waiting in the ether for the painter to find it and retrieve it.