Dream Skies

New YWCA show beautifully captures desertscapes on the earth and in the sky

What's the best way to capture a cloud?

In Cactus and Clouds, a charming show at the YWCA's Galleria on the west side, 20 artists find 20 different ways to get the job done.

An artist mysteriously named Trasherella, perhaps remembering the universal cotton-ball clouds of kindergarten, turns to needle and thread. In "Clouds," she's embroidered childlike gray rainclouds and white torrents of rain on a soft backdrop of black cloth.

Patrick Hynes uses classic colored ink for "Blue Cloud," a loose and lovely drawing of the desert, with a lone cloud above offering a tease of rain.

Gavin Hugh Troy, painting in soft pastel colors, creates naïve desertscapes filled with pink and white clouds, white rain and thickets of grateful saguaros and barrel cacti.

Curator Valerie Galloway, an artist who in the past has turned out her own dreamy miniature photos of Sonoran saguaros and skies, says the show is "all about the summer."

Indeed. In these hot monsoon days, Tucsonans regularly scan the skies, searching for the dark clouds that will unleash the rains on the parched populace—and those parched cacti.

But the exhibition is also intended to inject some energy into the sleepy summer art scene. Galloway has succeeded admirably: she's rounded up an eclectic group of artists who work in almost every medium possible.

The photographers—and mixed-media photographers—make a particularly strong showing. Patricia Katchur, long a photog of desert landscapes (and owner of the toy store Yikes), has created a suite of inventive mixed-media wall works that combine photography, watercolor and charcoals.

"Cloudscape #2" pictures a velvety black sky lit by dozens of white stars. A fluffy white cloud presides at the top, making the image a counterintuitive mix of night and day. For the backdrop, Katchur pools black paint and charcoal on the slick photographic paper. The watery paint has rolled around, staining the surface with shapes and lines and creating a luscious textured surface that combines the best of photography and painting.

"Cloudscape #5" pictures five white-and-gray cumulus cuties ascending stair-step-style into the heavens. This time the artist colors the background sky in sepia tones, making the piece seem like the work of an old-fashioned astronomer, an impression heightened by the antique golden frame.

Katchur even captures some of her clouds in glass. Two works are like paperweights, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Inside, the tiny photos are enticingly distorted by the curve of the glass. "DreamWorld Cloud #4817" has a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds; "DreamWorld Moody Moon" is its nighttime counterpoint. Against a dark brown sky, its clouds are lit from behind by moonlight.

Rosanna Salonia, a respected local photographer, is known for her chemical manipulation of film for sensual effect. Her two wonderfully melancholy images here are psychologically—and technically—quite different from the mostly cheerful works in the rest of the show.

"Young Bull, Sonoita, AZ," is a dreamscape, deliberately blurred, rendered in beeswaxed gelatin silver print and mixed media. It's like a memory, or a nightmare, retrieved from the past. It's a wide-open western landscape, with clouds gathering in the big sky, a long, flat horizon barely disrupted by low, distant mountains, and grasslands in the foreground. A dark bull at center, standing in the field, is the blackest element among the subtle grays.

Tiny at about four inches wide and five inches high, "Young Bull" is hemmed in by shadows that seem to be closing in on the space. Light dots are splattered across the surface of well, more evidence of darkroom manipulations.

Salonia presents her work differently too. The little photo is inside a shadow box, displayed like an archaeological artifact. Set against a stained, deep-red paper, the picture sits above a wooden shelf that holds small white shells.

Her other work, "Tracks, Willcox Playa," also a beeswaxed gelatin silver print, likewise grabs—and preserves—a single moment in time. It pictures a woman, perhaps the photographer herself, standing arms akimbo in a plain of plowed tracks. Clouds flit over the sky, and the tracks shoot diagonally toward the horizon. The work suggests both the permanence of the land, and the impermanence of those who inhabit it.

The other photographers are more in the Ansel Adams tradition: they glorify the beauty of the unspoiled west. Nicci Radhe does add color into two archival inkjet prints. One pictures a Technicolor rainbow zooming down from a cloud overhead. The cacti below radiate a golden light.

Jessie Shin stays with pure Adams black-and-white in her three archival inkjet prints. In "The Whiteness of the White," she makes the land almost vanish under a very low horizon. Instead of focusing on the earth, Shin aims her camera overhead, and shoots the million magnificent clouds rolling across a big sky. 

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