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In Defense of Wildness 

Three exhibitions silently make the case for preserving our national parks and other public lands

click to enlarge Half Dome, 2017 oil on panel, Duncan Martin

Courtesy of Davis Dominguez Gallery

Half Dome, 2017 oil on panel, Duncan Martin

Question: When do pretty landscape paintings turn political?

Answer: When they depict our embattled national parks, monuments and wilderness areas.

Three local shows, at Davis Dominguez, ArtsEye and Etherton, celebrate the mesmerizing beauty of America's national parks and public lands. The artworks are not overtly political, but in this political moment, they stand in silent witness to the incalculable value of wilderness.

Whether by design or not, the artists have depicted America's purple mountain majesties at a time when public lands are facing numerous assaults: from climate change to suburban development, to the current administration's distressing propensity to eye them as potential cash cows for private companies.

Way back in 2011, when few imagined that America might betray its natural treasures, expressionist painter Duncan Martin embarked on the ambitious project of visiting all 58 of the national parks—in the space of 58 months—and painting all of them. His task was complicated in 2013 when Pinnacles National Monument in central California, home to the rare condor, was promoted to a national park. Martin bravely added it to the mix.

Halfway through his cross-country odyssey, he exhibited the earliest park paintings in the series at Davis Dominguez Gallery, where he's a regular. That show included depictions of our own Saguaro National Park. He's now finished his marathon journey, and has come back to the gallery with paintings of the last parks he visited.

In 20 field studies and 20 finished paintings, Martin depicts the remote glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, the lava-spewing volcanoes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the iconic half dome at Yosemite in California, the aspens at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and the infinite vistas at Arizona's beloved Grand Canyon National Park. He's energetically rendered their myriad beauties in thick, lush oils, and his untamed brushstrokes match the wildness of the peaks and forests he paints.

Martin follows in the tradition of the 19th century painters who gloried in the West's dramatic scenery. Though his style—rough and free—differs from their romantic realism, he's attracted to the same drama that they admired, the snowy glaciers and soaring peaks. His Half Dome, the Yosemite granite cliff that so beguiled Ansel Adam, is a sun-dappled beauty. In contrast to Adams's austere black and white, Martin uses rich purple and ochre and blue to capture the sky, the rock and the light.

Over at ArtsEye, which typically mounts photography exhibitions, illustrator Chris Gall shows off 24 colored prints and oils reveling in Arizona. Twelve of the playful prints occupied the covers of Arizona Highway magazine, one for each of the months in calendar 2017. Gall got the New Year off right in January with a monumental Grand Canyon glowing orange, then followed up with Arizona's two other national parks. The Petrified Forest in February is boldly rendered with a copper log diagonally splayed on gray rock. Saguaro National Park, on the March cover, is a stately green cactus forest. Other Gall works lionize Arizona's national monuments, including the deep and lovely Canyon de Chelly and the Chiricahua monument, populated by eerie rock formations.

Stephen Strom, an astronomer turned photographer, typically takes long views of the western landscape. Etherton has put together a pop-up show of his views of Bear Ears, our newest national monument, founded in 2016 in the southeast corner of Utah. The 2,000-square-mile monument, the homeland of five distinct Indian tribes, is a treasure trove of archaeological sites, rock art, cave dwellings and burials. Strom's photographs of its sweeping terrain border on abstraction, all lines and curves, and the canyons, rock spires and skies are subtly colored in ochre, pale blue and earth green.

But the alluring Bears Ears, named for two matching buttes, is already in danger. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, on a quest to reduce or abolish many of the nation's national monuments, has targeted Bears Ears for shrinkage. Zinke belittled the notion that the historic landscape is a cultural treasure; if his efforts succeed, Bears Ears could be greatly reduced in size, and much of its acreage opened to mining, drilling and other for-profit commercial pursuits.

The assaults on our lands are local as well. Thanks to an underhanded rezoning maneuver in Marana, suburban sprawl is threatening Saguaro National Park, so lovingly pictured by Gall as a cactus wonderland. Gall also created a portrait of the magical Sonoita valley, whose charm—and water—may soon be endangered by the mile-wide Rosemont open-pit mine, a private enterprise that depends on using public land.

Martin's luminous Grand Canyon paintings, capturing the changing light at dusk and dawn, demonstrate why this park draws so many Americans. "Sunset, Lipan Point," a field study just 12 inches square, captures the canyon in late afternoon. Violet clouds skitter over a sky lit up orange in the distant horizon, and in the foreground, the canyons and cliffs are moving into the shadow of nighttime shades of maroon and purple.

Right now, plans are afoot that may harm those views. A development proposal outside the park, at Tusayan, would permit taller buildings and more lights, likely to diminish the canyon's starry dark skies. And under a new Trump administration proposal to jack up the entrance fees, families making the all-American road trip might be unable to afford the canyon's beauties.

Ironically, the national parks and monuments were created with the express purpose of preserving the land for the American people. Often called "America's best idea," these preserves got started in the 19th century, when the West was rapidly industrializing, and railroads and mines were beginning to mar the terrain. Artists and photographers sent pictorial evidence of the region's sublime beauty back East, and a movement arose to protect these spectacular spaces from commercial destruction. Yellowstone, created in 1872, was the first of the parks, and others soon followed, in every corner of the nation.

Nowadays, artists like Martin, Gall and Strom once again deserve the thanks of a grateful nation, for making the case for the people's parks in paint, in pixels and in print.

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