From Earth To Sky

At Etherton Gallery, Two Natural Forms Get Their Day In The Sun.

TREES AND CLOUDS are not exactly the first things that come to mind when the names Judy Chicago and Bailey Doogan come up, but that's what these two well-known artists are showing at Etherton Gallery.

Chicago (she's the trees) is an internationally known feminist artist who's exhibiting for the first time at the downtown gallery. She made her reputation in the early '70s, when she worked with Miriam Schapiro and a team of art students on "Womanhouse," a pioneering installation piece about women's lives built in every room of a real house. Even more famous, "The Dinner Party," another collaborative installation, was a dinner table honoring neglected women achievers, both real and mythical, from throughout history. Loaded with symbolism, the table was triangular (a reference to female genitalia), and the women's place settings were rendered in traditional women's crafts: stitched place mats and table runners and ceramic plates.

Tucson's own Doogan (the clouds) likewise has a reputation for work that aggressively challenges conventional ideas about women, particularly stereotypes about youth and age and the female body. Her provocative suite of drawings last year at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, for example, covered an entire room with larger-than-life women, their aging bodies defiantly bared.

It's true, though, that recently Doogan, a UA painting prof, has been showing delicious fairy-tale landscapes, their seas and cliffs and skies painted in frothy turquoise and pink. Playing with the landscape tradition of using the earth as a metaphor for female flesh, Doogan has sometimes craftily embedded a woman's body into her land's curves. The new suite of works, Illuminations, takes to the skies: these paintings on paper are almost all clouds, gorgeously painted in a spectrum of colors and an infinity of shapes. As far as I can tell, the only body parts to be seen are in "Altocumulus stratiformus perlucidus undulatus," an oil in blues and whites. A pair of legs lies leisurely where the horizon would be. They might well belong to a woman like Doogan, dreamily contemplating the skies.

Doogan, a Latin scholar back in her Catholic high-school days, has given all of these lovely cloud works the scientific names of the formations they picture. In fact, she says in an artist's statement, she became so entranced by the meteorological language in a cloud atlas -- "poetic, scientific and arcane" -- that she incorporated it into the work. Eight of the 10 works are diptychs, divided between cloud oil painting on the left, text on the right. (A graphic artist in advertising earlier in her career, Doogan has almost always played with text and image in her fine art works.)

She's right about the language. For "Altostratus translucidus...,"a pastel-colored painting of horizontal clouds in pinks, yellows and greys, the text begins, "The higher cloud layer consists of a rather featureless grey veil of Altostratus through which the sun is seen as through ground glass." But the paintings are an even greater joy. "Cumulonimbus capillatus with mamma in anvil," is a spectacular rendering of a field of round blue clouds pierced by a circle of yellow light. In fact, the way Doogan handles light on color borders on the Turner-esque sublime.

Similarly, Chicago has zeroed in on a single natural form. Made between 1993 and 1997, her series Thinking about Trees consists of graphic, colored drawings on paper. These boldly rendered works feature wintry leafless trunks done up in charcoal and brown gouache against a flat background of pale sky-blue. A series of quick studies demonstrate the pleasure Chicago takes in sitting alone and drawing from nature -- a real contrast to her famous, and elaborate, collaborations -- and some of the best works are observations of individual trees.

"Portrait of a Pine Tree in St. George, Florida," for instance, is a lively, twisting work, the tree's sinewy trunk having been blown into odd shapes by seacoast winds. "Chopped off Coral Tree on San Vicente Blvd" is another fine example of close observation en plein air; all by itself it demonstrates how much is lost when we recklessly destroy our trees. Unfortunately, Chicago too often moves from such straightforward pictures into more heavy-handed, and less successful, environmental critique. "Severed Trees" has four intact trees, four cut-off stumps and one log emblazoned with the title. "Hurt Tree" is a fine solitary tree taking up most of the paper, but it gushes blood out of the wound where its branch has been cut.

Chicago also turns her trees metaphorical, with mixed results. A dead forest is a memento mori for a family in "Orphaned Tree." A lonely tree stands sentinel above three stumps labeled like gravestones with names and dates: there's one for Mommy, Daddy and Baby Brother. "Imprisoned Tree" links environmentalism with feminism; the curving outlines of the trunk look for all the world like a female body, trapped behind the heavy grey bands that line the paper from top to bottom. These allegories are a bit clunky. The artist is better off when she allows a tree just to be a tree, as in the aptly named "Trees Twisting with Joy," a picture of an intact forest, its trees dancing in the breeze. All by themselves, the trees' eloquent forms -- like clouds' -- speak to the sheer beauty of nature inviolate and the need to keep it that way.

The big Etherton show also includes A Retrospective of Prints by longtime Rancho Linda Vista artist James G. Davis. The 22 fine prints in the collection date from 1968 all the way up to the present, and they provide a quick course in the development of Davis' familiar personal mythology. They range from paeans to nature, such as "Metamorphosis," a 1999 monotype celebrating love and the sea, to darkly decadent urban scenes. "Man Eating Oysters," a 1989 lithograph, complete with claustrophobic bar interior and mesmerizing circular mirror, is a small gem about city life.

Judy Chicago: Drawings; Bailey Doogan: Recent Paintings; and James G. Davis: Paintings and Works on Paper continues through Saturday, November 6, at Etherton Gallery, 135. S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursday. For more information call 624-7370.

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