Arizona Abstract

Engaging environmental works at Tohono Chul examine nature, life and death

Alvaro Enciso's patterned collages right fit right in with the rest of the art in Arizona Abstract.

His four handsome pieces, on view in a group show at Tohono Chul, are modernist abstracts, with shiny bits and pieces of metal pinned down with silver nails onto panels. The pleasing compositions are patchily painted, mostly one color to a panel, royal blue, say, or white or sky blue or even pink.

Like much of the work in this good-looking 31-artist show curated by James Schaub, Enciso's pieces are meant to conjure up the strangely abstracted landscape that is Arizona. The other artists are a little more literal than is Enciso. Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay, for example, actually used Northern Arizona elms in their "Elm Stick Spiral." They picked up fallen sticks, polished and sanded them to a fine pale beige, then spun them out into a huge and elegant spiral across the floor.

William Lesch photographed slices of inner saguaro trunk, turning them into abstracted colored discs that seem to shine like the sun ("Saguaro Cross Section #4).

Enciso's pieces deviate from this pattern. His materials are not cacti or branches; they're human-generated trash. But they bear an important relationship with the desert. He harvests his pieces of tin along the deadly migrant trails of Southern Arizona, picking them up on the desert paths where desperate travelers heading north hike and stumble and sometimes die.

The deaths are no small thing. Between the year 2000 and the end of April this year, 3128 bodies of migrants have been found in our borderlands, according to data I've tallied from Coalición Derechos Humanos and the Pima County Forensic Science Center. That number counts only the bodies found; it doesn't cover the deaths from this past May or from the killing days of our record-hot June.

Enciso is a Samaritan, a volunteer who puts out water and food on the trails in hopes of saving lives. When he's out in the wilderness lugging 8-pound jugs of water, he picks up the tin food cans the border crossers have left behind. Then he brings the containers home and turns them into art.

Also known for planting crosses at the places where migrants have perished, Enciso cuts up the pieces of tin and hammers them into works of mournful beauty. "Los Otros" is black and bleak. "Los Inocentes," a vertical piece painted white and gray, has one tin square colored red, the color of the heart–and of blood.

"Visual Tautologies #2" has three panels arranged horizontally, each full of irregularly shaped slices of tin—imperfect triangles, parallelograms, trapezoids. But these salvaged pieces of trash are gleaming and jewel-like. They're a new form of earth art that departs from the land itself to memorialize the living and the dead who have crossed it.

Most of the other artists more directly celebrate the land itself, converting its contours and contents into shapes and colors. Well-known Tucson painter Jim Waid transforms the lush desert into a pulsating yellow abstraction in "Jaunt," an acrylic on canvas whose flowers are re-imagined and magnified.

Jay Suchland captures the spinning lines and curves of Antelope Canyon in the Navajo Nation. But he prints them in black and white, draining them of color to make them more abstract. The technique works. Without the canyon's legendary oranges and magentas, a viewer zeroes in on swirl and shadow. Similarly, in her close-ups of glistening leaves and drops of dew, photog Jessie Shinn uses black and white to force us to focus on the shimmer.

Christopher Allison searches out the toothy common sotol, a plant that thrives in Molino Basin in the lower reaches of the Catalinas, and deploys it in "heavily modified" photographic prints. In the photo here, he's arranged the plant's pieces like a sun, its exploding rays all yellow and green.

All of the artists, Enciso included, treat the landscape with respect, giving the exhibition an environmental bent. But not all the artists are engaged with actual nature. Some slyly pull a fast one, using weird material to create works that replicate what other artists have found on the ground. Dana K. Senge's clever "Desert Rabbit" is a case in point.

Senge tricks us into thinking she's polished up a plant skeleton that already looked like a bunny when she came across it. Think seashore driftwood art in the form of a seagull or tern. Senge's earth-red near-abstraction appears to be a dead cactus casing, or a particularly elegant tumbleweed. The joke is that not only is "Desert Rabbit" not a bunny, it's not even crafted from a plant. It's a work of humorous artifice, a ceramic sculpture deliberately shaped from clay to look like a plant—and a rabbit.

Max McConkey's "Santa Cruz Floor" seems to be a beautiful piece of desert river bottom, carefully dug and mounted on a wall. It isn't. It's a lovely, textured painting, an inventive mélange of oil paint, cement and other media.

Likewise, Julie Sasse, chief curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, made a sleight-of-hand work that looks like a stretch of desert floor, subtly colored in shades of mud. But Sasse uses a trick in her "Regression I" that's the opposite of McConkey's.

Instead of using traditional artist materials, Sasse has rolled out sheets of thin lead, and stitched the metal onto canvas with needle and thread. Landscapes are as fleeting as memories, she notes, and in this work she tries, futilely, to capture both.