In the Golden Grass

The art of Desert Grasslands examines the disappearing landscapes of the Southwest

Last of the blue Baboquivari Mountains, home of Iitoi, the Tohono O'odham creator god, lies the sprawling Altar Valley, a 610,000-acre paradise of Sonoran Desert grassland.

Only part of it is protected. The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, at just more than 117,000 acres, covers a southern swath of the Altar, trying to safeguard its grasslands, its wetlands, its wildlife and its wealth of birds. One year, somebody counted 320 different bird species within the refuge boundaries.

Philadelphia/New Jersey transplant Ben Johnson moved to Tucson five years ago, seduced by the sweeping spaces of the West. In his day job, he's curator at Tohono Chul Park, but in his off hours he records the birds of the Buenos Aires in fine, old-fashioned pencil drawings. But he's also turned to more up-to-date media in his peregrinations through the valley's tall grasses.

The Persistence of Silence, a 10-minute Johnson video from 2012, hangs on the wall next to his drawings in the big Desert Grasslands exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art. More than any of the other works in the show—which is full of interesting photos, paintings and even resin works—his video captures what it's like actually to be in a grasslands.

Johnson set a fixed camera in the Altar Valley's tall golden grass, and under a brilliant Western sky he recorded the shifts in the wind, the quiet calls of the birds and the swaying of the grass.

The landscape in the video is beautiful and pristine, but as Johnson and most of the show's 18 artists remind us, the grasslands of the West are at risk. Development, overuse of scarce water, mining and cattle ranching imperil land and wildlife alike in these fragile terrains.

With its location close to the Mexican border, the Altar Valley has also been strained by migration. Desperate migrants by the thousands have trudged through its wide flat corridor in the last dozen years, pushed into perilous Arizona by a change in U.S. border policy that tightened safer border crossings in California and Texas. And in response to this Great Migration, as Johnson writes in an artist's statement, a "crisscrossing network of United States Border Patrol off-road vehicles" has scarred the land.

Even before the modern American tragedy of migrant journeys and deaths (2,543 bodies have been found in Arizona since 2000), human occupation had harmed the Altar Valley. Imported exotic grasses endangered local varieties, and the cow, icon and enemy of the West, laid waste to untold acres. Visitors to the Buenos Aires can see the luxuriant grasses of the refuge side by side with despoiled land in adjoining cattle ranches.

But Desert Grasslands takes a look at endangered terrain all over the West. The artists roam from the Missouri River grasslands way up north in semi-arid Montana (seen in intricate photos and maps layered by Deborah Springstead Ford), to the Otero Mesa in the Chihuahuan Desert, way down south in New Mexico, chronicled in Michael Berman's tour-de-force "Ineffable Codex," a wall-sized photo assemblage almost as big as the West.

Berman's interrupted landscapes—each framed separately and lined up to be "read" as single pictures—veer dramatically from lush to laid low. Cattle roam on bare-dirt patches in some of these faded black and whites, while pure wilderness reigns in shots of distant territories under big skies.

More than a few of the artists, including Johnson's fellow Philadelphian MF Cardamone, examine the splendid grasslands of Muleshoe Ranch, north of Willcox. Cardamone makes nice, almost naïve drawings in the style of old-fashioned botanical illustrations. In "Grass Lands," 2012, her color sketches of cattle signs and Indian pottery designs float in an abstract space, but in the center presides a lovely little landscape of Muleshoe's grasses and mountains.

Curated by the museum's Julie Sasse, the exhibition is the final chapter in the Desert Initiative, a rolling series of local exhibitions this season that mostly covered the desert Southwest. (Pima Community College had a knockout photography show on migrants; the University of Arizona Museum of Art's multi-media display focused on water.)

In her grasslands investigation, Sasse aimed both for the microcosm—the individual blade of grass, the close-up of a bird—and the macrocosm—the long-distance views of the infinite West, big skies above, long stretches of land below. Some of the best up-close portraits of grass are by painter Karen Kitchel, who zooms in on sheaves waving in the wind, and by photog Matilda Essig, who makes huge images of single dancing grasses.

Some of the work on view has been seen in Tucson before. Photographer Kate Breakey's powerful photograms of desert animals (she uses the sun to imprint the silhouette of dead animals on photosensitive paper) have been exhibited at Etherton Gallery, as have Mark Klett's astute "re-photographic survey" images, which blend historic 19th-century photos with images of the same places taken today.

David Taylor's bright photos of border boundaries past and present have been seen both at Pima and at the UA Joseph Gross Gallery. Moira Marti Geoffrion previously exhibited some of her small oils of Southwest birds at Pima, though her painted aviary here is 117 species strong.

Newcomer Ford's works from the Upper West make for a refreshing change. Ford, a professor at Prescott College in northern Arizona, is preoccupied by what she calls "geography as cultural construct." In 2010, she traveled around the West, researching the historical phenomenon of Manifest Destiny and the contemporary problems of mining and extraction. She foraged around in archives for historical letters and maps and layered them over her silver gelatin photos of what looks like a weary landscape.

Colored in the sepia tones of the 19th century, the photos picture Montana's dry grasslands, overrun with rocks and pebbles. The white lines of the maps on top chart out the routes that settlers took to get there, as well as the army forts whose soldiers helped them take away the land.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in Montana, and though the Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota warriors defeated the U.S. troops, the interlopers eventually prevailed. In Ford's work, those old cultural wounds have their corollary in contemporary environmental assaults, particularly the furor in Montana over coal bed methane, a form of natural gas that's extracted from coal seams underground.

Ford writes that the process damages wildlife habitat and scars the land. In "OM," she shows what might well be lost. The photo pictures a gorgeous sweep of grasses in front of Granite Ridge. The artist managed to position her camera so that viewers feel like they're zooming in themselves, flying over the magnificent earth.

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