All That Glitters

In provocative Stillness exhibition at Bernal Gallery, four artists explore nature and identity

Walk into the newly remodeled Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at Pima College and the first thing you see is a fairytale forest of golden trees.

In this dazzling installation by Sean-Paul Pluguez, no fewer than 100 "trees" are lined up neatly, row on row, planted into low birch platforms. Bending slightly, as real trees do, they curve upward toward an imagined sky, reaching about six feet into the air.

The trees are actually grape stakes, rough wooden posts that normally would be used to hold up grape vines in a vineyard. But they've been transformed by glimmering 24-carat gold leaf, painstakingly applied by the artist over the course of a year. The gold catches the light, and it's thick and textured, dipping into hollows in the stakes or pushing outwards into lines and patterns.

"The Genetically Modified Forest" is a thing of beauty—who can resist the allure of gold?—but it carries a warning. The stakes are sharp and pointed at the top. And as many fairytale heroines have found, all that glitters is not really gold.

As Pluguez notes in an artist statement, the piece "speaks of man's limited abilities to deal with his own planet." We may think we can clear-cut our real forests with impunity or that we can dump coal dust into our streams, a practice lately authorized by our new leaders in Washington.

We can't disobey the laws of nature for long. When we pollute our rivers, we lose our drinking water, and when we ax our trees, we lose their life-giving abilities to filter out carbon dioxide from the air and provide us with oxygen. A pretty fake forest is no substitute for a real one.

Even so, Pluguez's meditative installation is a paean to the beauty and stillness of the natural world, properly preserved. It's the anchor for a group show about nature aptly called Stillness; all four of its artists create a sense of calm in works that cover landscape, animals and the human body.

While Pluguez uses brilliant color, the other three—all photographers—stick with muted tones or even black and white.

Colin Blakely, newish head of the UA School of Art—he started in 2015—makes his community debut with an elegant suite of landscape photos. Four pictures are of the only "mountains" he could find his former home in Michigan: the piles of snow plowed into the edges of a shopping center parking lot.

Following the lead of the early New Topographic photographers, Blakely has reproduced the ugliness of the modern American landscape in these snowy pictures. Beyond the snow mountains are neon signs, tall light poles and the dispiriting concrete slabs of retail architecture.

In a separate series, Blakely photographed two iconic landmarks made famous by two 19th century painters. His "Niagara Falls" is "after" Frederic Church's 1857 oil on canvas; likewise, Blakely's "Yosemite Valley" is after an 1875 oil by Bierstadt, who painted Yosemite over and over. Both painters helped mythologize the monumental landscapes of the new American nation; in their art of the sublime, the grandeur of a thundering waterfall or a soaring western peak suggested the greatness of America.

Blakely contends that these mythical place exist in some ways only in "our collective cultural imagination." To "disrupt" those familiar landscapes, he switches the medium from classic oils to archival pigment prints spit out by a computer printers. He ratchets up or tones down the color, and even shifts some elements in the compositions.

And he displays the work in a way that suggests their subjects' current vulnerability. The large swathes of photographic paper dangle unframed on the wall, held precariously in place by simple black bands at bottom and top. Nowadays, these revered landscapes are caught in a tug of war between those who want to sell America's protected lands for profit and those who want to safeguard wilderness.

Kate Breakey, an internationally known photographer, lives in the desert outside Tucson. She makes gorgeous photos of desert moons and of the ocean waters of her native Australia, but most often, as she does here, she zeroes in on lifeless animals.

Constantly trying out new media, this time she has used waxy encaustic paint and pencil atop the black-and-white archival digital prints of her new series, Taxonomy of Memory, a wall-full of 34 works. The encaustics add a creamy texture to her views of the desert's dead: a spiny lizard, a vermillion flycatcher, a king brown snake. She lays out small corpses that she finds on trails, and makes haunting pictures of them, blowing them up to grand proportions. As she writes, "A thing fills with exactly the radiance you accord it."

And as respite from these small deaths, she adds an eerily beautiful magnolia and a lovely female nude, young and buoyantly healthy.

Canadian artist Claire A. Warden, armed with a BFA in photography from ASU, makes a striking debut in Tucson with Mimesis, a series of near-abstract photos in black and white that focus on the human body—or parts thereof. Instead of flesh and skin, Warden photographs samples of her own blood and spit and skin, pooled out on pieces of glass, and writ large in pigmented print photos on big sheets of loose paper.

As a foreign national with a diverse ethnic heritage, Warden says, she is constantly asked, "What are you?" Pondering the nature of identity, she began dissecting it down to the cellular level—to blood and saliva and fingerprints—and back up again to the celestial and universal.

The giant photos of her own body fluids look like a biologist's slide samples, their molecular curves and spheres magnified by a microscope. But they also look like the infinite spaces and bright heavenly bodies of the universe. Warden's own biology may be genetically fixed but she can take her constructed identity in any direction she pleases, moving as freely as a shooting star.

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