Reveling in the Desert

Patricia Katchur celebrates the area's environs in various media in her Tucson Botanical Gardens show

Late one afternoon last week, after a modest rain, white clouds darted across the gray sky.

A flotilla of fluffies got stuck on the Catalinas. One cloud was caught up near Finger Rock, and others hovered in the canyons below, trapped in hollows, skewered on escarpments. They looked like cotton balls a child might glue onto a painting.

At the Tucson Botanical Gardens, the lush vegetation—wet and glistening from the rain—blocked the view of this rare climatic quirk. No matter: Inside the Porter Hall Gallery, in the show Desierto, Patricia Katchur's mixed-media works and photos covered pretty much the same monsoon territory.

"Monsoon #4277," an abstracted color photo, captures a storm at the height of its turbulence, though it's not entirely clear whether Katchur's camera captured torrents of rain in the wind, or water rushing down an arroyo. The picture is a rush of movement, with lines cascading all across the surface. Light breaks through subtle shades of brown, gold and ultramarine.

The clouds star in "Monsoon #5275," a black-and-white photo that's all sky. The proverbial dark clouds close in from the edge, about to overpower the small patch of light at center. Maybe, just maybe, there's a hint of pinkish yellow in this sunbeam.

"Happy Clouds" is as cheerful as a kindergartener's painting. This brightly colored photo pictures a day after the rains, when the skies have dried, and the world is fresh and new. Two enormous and jaunty cumulus clouds—distant cousins of the cotton puffs on the real-life Catalinas—billow across a sky of cartoon blue.

A Pittsburgh native turned Tucsonan (she now owns Yikes Toys), Katchur loves the Sonoran Desert in all its seasons. She often keeps her eye on the skies, but she also likes the middle-distance, classic Western scenes of mountains rolling across the horizon. And occasionally, she zooms in for close-ups of the desert's prickly plants. With the exception of a handful of surreal experiments, in which she superimposes floating human heads over desert scenes, Katchur sticks with pure landscape.

She's tried out a number of media in the 22 Desierto works, and she even invited "sound sculptor" Glenn Weyant to create a soundscape to accompany the show. (Though Weyant debuted it at the opening, the piece is not playing at the gallery now. However, anyone can listen to it on his website.)

Katchur's own artworks alternate between straight photographs, in black-and-white or color, and wildly mixed media. The painterly mixed-media pieces begin with a photographic base. Printed on heavy paper, the underlying photo can be as simple as a textured background. But then Katchur lavishes the surface with everything from graphite, oil pencil and wax to India ink and white charcoal.

"Mountain Triptych," for instance, is a mixed-media work printed and colored on paper. The paper is slightly wrinkled, which sends interesting creases across the surface, and the pigments—red-brown, pale green, gray, pale blue—are thick and luscious. Evidence of the work of a human hand, these touches are disarming.

The piece pictures a central mountain flanked by two smaller peaks. Nothing matches up, though; the three pictures of the triptych been chopped at their edges, and the mountains are deliberately, and charmingly, misaligned. In fact, most of the works in the show have images spread across multiple sheets of adjoining paper, in diptychs, triptychs and even what you might call sextychs—six separate papers standing side by side.

The sextych—"Upon Awakening #1459-1464"—has six color photos lined up to give six views of the mesquites outside of Katchur's bedroom window. Minutely etching the tree trunks, branches and leaves, the artist has faithfully reproduced nature. But then she turns it topsy-turvy. The tree is positioned differently in each of the six pictures, turning left, right and sideways, cavorting against the bright-blue sky.

Sometimes, Katchur goes almost entirely abstract, reducing the triumvirate of sky, mountains and desert into simple shapes. "Cloud and Mountain," just 12 inches square, is a textured mixed-media colored in speckled gray and black-and-white. Instead of conveying the long sweep of the landscape, Katchur flattens the scene, putting everything into one plane. The large, white cloud hanging front and center is as smooth-edged as a cutout and as solid as a boulder. The scene is so graphic and simple, it could almost be a collage.

"Fire on Mountains Triptych" is somewhere in between nature and imagination. One of the mixed-media works, it's a three-part picture of three mountains in a row. But the landscape is stylized, and imaginatively rendered. This time around, the hills are burning. White plumes of smoke rise from the middle mountain, and orange flares pop up on the left peak. The sky has turned orange, too, and a yellow sun hangs overhead.

Back on Earth, "Saguaro Landscape Diptych" hews close to reality. A moody mixed media of everybody's favorite cactus, it has saguaros set in a minimal landscape, with low mountains seen dimly in the distance. Three large saguaros raise their arms in the left picture; a supersized saguaro is alone on the right.

But Katchur has gone to work on the original photograph, softening the saguaros' edges with gray charcoal, and coming up with different drawing styles for each. One is carefully limned with fine lines and shadows; another is bluntly colored in. Tiny dots are scattered all over; a background is tinted a pale lemon yellow. Sticking to a limited palette, the artist manages to suggest old-timey sepia photos, and deserts of times past.

The artist clearly revels in the inspiration the Sonoran Desert gives her. The magical "Starry Dream" is like a shout of pure joy. A mixed-media piece, it's tiny at just 9 1/2 inches square. A range of gray mountains sits very low on the horizon, allowing the blue night sky to go on forever. And across this infinite space, hundreds of white stars explode, radiating their light as far as the eye can see.