Cave Creations

Sally Gall's photographs of underground worlds highlight the offerings at Etherton.

Sally Gall has long been interested in photographing the water's edge, capturing in black and white the "difference between what is solid and soft, what is surface and what is liquid."

For years, she photographed rice fields, waterfalls and ponds, making ambiguous photos where the water seemed to metamorphose into solid ground.

"I like the idea that you have the question: Can I dip a foot in?" she told the audience at Photo LA in January.

But accustomed as she was to grappling with nature's uncertain borders, the award-winning New York City photographer was unprepared for her first glimpse of the landscape underground. Gall, whose traveling show Subterranea is now on view at Etherton, along with landscape paintings by Nancy Tokar Miller and mixed-media assemblages by Joe Novak, first stumbled on a cave when she was hiking with her husband in a Mexican jungle. A fierce rainstorm forced them to seek shelter inside its rocky entrance.

Gall found the cave scary, and not only because of its enveloping darkness. The boundaries between inside and outside, between dark and light, between solid and liquid, were so murky and indistinct as to be almost unknowable. She calmed her fears long enough to try taking a photograph from inside the cave. Gall didn't know it yet, but she had accidentally stumbled onto a project that would occupy her for three years.

A small fraction of the exquisite photographs she made in caves in Mexico, Italy, Thailand, Belize and France hang on the walls at Etherton, most of them suffused with the half-light that filters into the earth from the outside world. The world Gall conjures up with her camera is passing strange.

A subterranean waterfall tumbles out of a rock wall in "Lightfall," its stream of water mysteriously lit by a light source we can't see. Plants colonize a dim grotto in "The Jungle, Fallen Through." In "Thirst," tree roots tumble down into a crevice, in search of an underground stream, and in "Messenger," an underground tree thrusts itself up toward the light. There's even the touch of a human hand inside one cave: Rock steps carved by Yucatecan farmers lead up out of the depths toward the light in "Pause."

Gall never uses artificial light, so she often had to sit inside a cave's "twilight zone" for hours for her film to get enough light to be exposed adequately. But the time she put in helped her attain what she poetically called a "lunar-like light" in a "radiant darkness." A formalist who "wants to make photos of beautiful forms," Gall has made of the ungovernable caves elegant compositions that veer between that velvety blackness and a redemptive light. Her unusually large prints not only allow for intricate surface detail to emerge--like the caves' etched walls and textured rocks--but also suggest the caverns' overpowering size.

The work was often treacherous. Gall contracted malaria along the way, banged shinbones and skull, slogged through hip-deep water, and once terrified a party of spelunkers who thought they had the remote underground wilderness to themselves. (They in turn wrecked her picture.)

"I really don't want to photograph caves again," she said. "I get more fearful as I get older."

But terrifying as it sometimes was to make, this remarkable body of work literally opens up an unknown world. And with its understated allusions to heaven and hell, it also has its metaphorical side. Gall said she likes her photos "to be passageways," and in a picture like "Observatory," 2001, where the lighted sky opens up overhead, she leads us on a journey out of the underworld and into the celestial light.

TOKAR MILLER ALSO TAKES viewers into a landscape and, like Gall, she luxuriates in the play of water and light. An adventurer who routinely travels to Asia and Europe, this time around, the longtime Tucson painter turns her attention closer to home--Agua Caliente Park on the city's far eastside. This desert park, blessed by an abundance of water, has inspired what may be the loveliest paintings this accomplished artist has ever produced.

Loosely and so thinly painted as to be almost transparent, these abstracted acrylics on paper evoke the park's lineaments with an Asian economy. A bridge across the pond becomes a piece of white-and-red calligraphy against flat yellow in "Agua Caliente," 2003. The water's horizon is a quick line in the four "Desert Pond" paintings; even their trees are mere suggestions.

This series gives Tokar Miller a template for experiments in color and density. The four small horizontal paintings, about 10 inches high and perhaps 48 inches long, all depict the exact same scene: pond in the foreground, a thin stretch of land along the horizon, a sweep of sky overhead, and trees clustering around the water's edge. Yet beyond these bones, each painting is completely different.

The ethereal "Desert Pond/Chinese Notation," as its title suggests, is a series of quick, deft strokes against colors as thin and as stained as watercolor. "Galicia" is more solid and densely colored. The trees in the distance are a bright green; the weightier horizon suggests some buildings; and, with its thick greens and blue-grays, even the water turns from evanescent to substantial, not unlike Gall's "solid water." "Poem Scroll" can barely be grasped: Two quick flashes of red make up the building, and swathes of shiny pale blue-white paint are mere suggestions of sky and water. Finally, the fourth, the wild "Taraudant," explodes in fauvist reds, golds and pinks, the calm pond metamorphosing into a jubilant abstraction.

The front gallery has a small show by Novak, who encases real-life minerals in mixed-media assemblages. Each glowing work has a jewel-like rock--shiny gold selenite or blue-green malachite--pinned inside a rectangular space carved into the wood; the wood in turn is painted in matching colors. "Echoes 17" is a gray-white painting surrounding a smoky quartz. "Echoes 50" drips lavender acrylic paint over maroon; the transparent purple mineral inside the painting is a fluorite with calcite on quartz.

These works are a little gimmicky; they were right in time for the now-departed Gem and Mineral show. Still, they're meticulously constructed, enchantingly colored and surprisingly alluring. Like all the works in this thoughtful exhibition, they're fine meditations on nature, on place and, most of all, on the joys of light.

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