Altered Landscapes

Painters play with geometry at Davis Dominguez, Fala Collections

It's hard to find loveliness in Tucson's adulterated landscape, in the multi-lane roads that slice through the desert, in the electrical substations that mar mountain views, in the endless seas of red-tiled roofs that infect the outer valleys.

James Cook does.

In fact, Cook is so skilled a painter he can turn almost anything into a thing of beauty. In his works, the subjects, be they sprawling subdivisions or spacious skies, are almost beside the point. His bravura handling of the paint is what matters: his pure layers of color, slabbed in thick gobs onto his linen canvases with a palette knife, glistening like butter.

A longtime Tucson artist, Cook owes his success partly to his uncanny ability to occupy the breach between cutting edge and conventional, between an abstract painting style and realist Western subjects. In his show at Davis Dominguez Gallery, Cook provides the Western landscapes on huge canvases with big price tags, expected by his many traditional fans. He's nailed down the glories of palo verdes in yellow bloom, glittering in the sunlight, against the backdrop of a craggy rock cliff ("La Cañada #2"). He provides the classic Western triad in "Sawtooth Branch," a long view of big sky and distant mountains rising out of the horizon, and foreground trees and river.

But, more interestingly, he also ventures into less-overworked terrain. That's where those electrical substations come in. Cook has made some stunning paintings of Tucson as it really is.

"Oro Valley #1" tackles the kind of Tucson view that makes driving around town so hard on the eyes. An electrical substation is front and center, one of those near-anonymous assemblages of gray metal boxes on the ground, almost dwarfed by electrical spires soaring up into the sky, along with their assorted tangle of wires. Just beyond is a sad clump of vegetation and an ungainly shopping center, stretching in tiresome fashion across the horizon. And in the distance, instead of sky, there is an endless vision of suburbia, its identical houses mutating into infinity.

Sounds ugly, and in real life, it is. Not in Cook's hands. He turns this detritus of modern life into something breathtaking. The composition is a monumental piece of geometry, with the diagonals of the towers soaring cathedral-like into the sky, rectangles and cubes tumbling across the horizon, bold lines slashing vertically, horizontally and every which way. The palette is pale and alluring, suitable for a desert scene at midday, almost bleached out by the sun, a luscious symphony of pales blues and grays, sage greens and corals.

Cook has colored those sorry bushes with barely blended dashes of earth green, sage and ochre. The orange-pink rooftops emerge almost three-dimensionally off the linen. For the swirling lines of the wires, Cook has plunged into his thick, wet paint with the pointy end of a brush, rapidly "drawing" their curves.

"Oro Valley #2," a long view of the once-open lands, is smaller but equally lovely. A big road (Oracle?) curves sinuously up to the horizon, its cars barely visible; telephone poles are planted, cross-like, in the distance. The inevitable orange roofs shimmer in the foreground.

The same thing goes for Cook's treatment of the big generating plant at Irvington Road near Interstate 10. Nobody traveling by on the freeway would think of it as a Tucson attraction, but Cook's magisterial painting "Irvington--Night Rain" turns it into a vision of light and dark. The sky and rain-slicked road are pure black, and the plant glows in orange and ochre; salmon-colored flames leap out of the smokestacks. Yellow sparks sizzle randomly across the surface. This gorgeous work is also wonderfully geometric, with diagonal ladders, vertical smokestacks, cube sheds, bold horizontal floors.

A dozen years ago at the Tucson Museum of Art, Cook exhibited a similar series of great paintings inspired by a smelter. Like those works, "Irvington--Night Rain" displays an awe of industry, of grand enterprise, of mighty labor, of day and night and, by extension, of heaven and hell. And speaking of armageddon, the Davis Dominguez show also has a huge painting of Mount Lemmon burning. It's unclear how Cook was able to make his site sketches, also on view, but "Aspen Fire--Night #1" is a yellow-hot vision of fire.

Melissa Button also paints altered landscapes, if less apocalyptically than Cook. Up the street from Davis Dominguez at Fala Collections, she's showing paint-on-wood works that look at imaginary landscapes through the lens of architecture. A former architect, Button paints strangely impossible constructions, buildings with lines that don't match up, open-air roofs, hallways that disappear into the sky. Almost always, though, this puzzling architecture embraces nature.

In fact, in "east meets west," nature is almost indistinguishable from nurture. The piece depicts a long, low horizontal building that merges with rolling brown hills. Bare-branched trees sprout from its floors, and it's hard to tell where the building ends and the blue sky begins. It's the ultimate prairie schoolhouse.

"storing the sky" is tall and lean. Button uses her architectural training to render perspective, making the two walls at either side slope into the middle distance. You can easily imagine stepping into this space, but it would be a mistake if you kept going: At the end of the hallway, you'd fall abruptly off into the painted clouds. There's no sheltering earth here.

Button has developed an interesting methodology, obviously influenced by her work with architectural models. She alternates between oil paint and aniline dyes; the thin dyes sink into the wood's natural grain and allow the warm wood colors--burnt sienna, ochre--to hold their own against the colored paint.

Some of the works are actually three-dimensional. "abstract landscape" is a complicated cut-away view of a two-story house against the blue sky. It's colored in blues and warm tans, but it's Escher-like nonetheless, with dangling landings, a staircase that doesn't go where it should and floors that don't meet. A couple of rooms are actually cut into the surface, giving depth and shadows to the piece.

Despite these descriptions, these works are not threatening. Rather, they're precise and cerebral, a kind of architectural guessing game.

Button's elegant constructions are accompanied by her husband's manipulated photos of landscape. Ernie Button shoots colored pictures of dramatic Arizona skies, then, in the studio, uses the developed photos as a backdrop for invented landscapes. His medium is Grape Nuts cereal. He piles the bits into sloping mountains in front of the sunsets, lights them dramatically and shoots the whole thing. It's an entertaining proposition--the cereal is actually quite convincing--but perhaps a bit limited.

Standing apart from these three landscape artists is sculptor Mark Rossi, back at Davis Dominguez. He makes realistic bronzes of Western animals, but they're not as hokey as that sounds. They're spare, sinewy renderings of river otters and desert jackrabbits, the creatures that inhabited this landscape way before the humans altered it.

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