The Drawing Studio compares abstractions with the plein-air works that inspired them

When Meredith Milstead goes outside to draw, she pretty much lets nature call the shots.

She sketches out the hills, rocks, clouds and cacti she finds out there. Where people have built houses, she draws in the rooftops, and if telephone poles mar the desert's beauty, she dutifully puts them in anyway, true to the scene at hand.

She does shape the composition by adjusting her viewpoint—"Animas River" is a water-level view of a rushing stream; "Animas Turbulence" is a bird's-eye view from on high of the same scene. But she doesn't deviate from the truth of what she finds. Both works, on view at The Drawing Studio, capture the white water splashing over rocks, and the swirling eddies below the surface.

Milstead colors these lively pastels in the shades that nature dictates: flashes of gold in the sky above Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountains in "Dusk"; midnight blue for the view of Tucson from Trail's End at night in "City Lights." Because the light is ever-changing, she rushes to capture the scene before it changes, quickly dashing off strokes, lines and slashes of color.

Though she works in pastels, Milstead is practicing the fine old art of plein-air painting, a genre much prized for its freshness and spontaneity. And when she's had her fill of the great outdoors, she retreats to the studio, creating large-scale pastels inspired by her outdoor forays.

Her new show is an object lesson in the relationship of plein air to studio art. Shared with painter Betina Fink, who follows the same M.O. in oils, the exhibition is aptly titled Landscape (Un)Tamed: Order and Chaos in the Natural World.

Landscape is a before-and-after glimpse at the two artists' practice. It demonstrates what a piece looks like when the artist constructs it out in the open air, and how that changes when the artist takes the sketch back to the studio and makes something new. For ease of comparison, the plein-air and studio pieces of the same location are hung together on the wall. (The educational dimension of the show is no accident; both artists are longtime teachers at The Drawing Studio.)

Fink doesn't make significant changes when she moves from her plein-air oil sketches to her fully worked oil paintings. The paint is thicker and lusher in the final works, of course, and she might alter nature's composition a bit in her studio, moving a tree here, a boulder there, and enlarging a cloud or a cliff. But the two versions bear a close relationship to each other. In her rough oil sketch "El Malpais, New Mexico," a rock formation looms largely against the sky. In the final studio version, Fink has reconsidered, dwarfing the rock by raising the background mountain higher above the horizon.

Not so with Milstead. Her studio works—large pastels easily four or five times the size of her plein-air pieces—at first glance seem to have no relation whatever to the plein-air pieces that inspired them. Where her small outdoor drawings are recognizable landscapes, her pastels are near-abstractions. And in an exhilarating irony, Milstead's studio compositions are far wilder than those created by untamed nature.

Consider "Night Vision," the big abstraction that's paired with the more-conventional landscapes "Dusk" and "City Lights." Those two small pastels have the standard compositional division of the Western landscape—big sky stretching over a line of mountains on the horizon, and a foreground which in these cases alternates from untouched desert in "Dusk" to houses aglow in "City Lights."

By contrast, "Night Vision" is an all-over pattern picture, with multiple layers of images. Undulating roots spike their way across the top layer of the big sheet of paper; below them are dots on a field of royal blue. A mysterious egg-shaped oval floats above the whole thing. Pollock-like, the layers suggest infinite space.

You can see the work as a pure abstraction. But closer inspection reveals that color and theme link the two sets of work. "Night Vision" picks up the jewel-like shades that infuse Tucson's desert and mountains as the day wanes. Glorious orange, amber and gold color the snaking branches, and the infinite blues of the darkening sky find their way into the background. White dots mimic the stars.

And those branches and roots? They come directly from the desert. Seen only at a distance in the smaller landscapes, these desert flora are in hyper-close-up in the larger work. (Milstead keeps some twisted desert wood in the studio for reference; a few samples are displayed in the gallery.) All of "Night Vision" can be read as a microscopic view of a desert bramble.

"Floe" similarly transforms the rushing rivers in the two "Animas" sketches. Instead of the fish-eye or bird's-eye view of the waters, we get a microscopic view of driftwood tossing and turning in the rapids. Without the clues given in the adjoining small pastels, you might not recognize the picture as a riff on nature. The large shapes don't necessarily read as water or wood, especially since Milstead changed the colors to a most-unnatural combo of purple and gold. Either way—as an abstraction of nature, or as a pure abstraction—"Floe" is eloquent and lively.

Once plein-air artists come in from the wild, they run the risk of taming nature too much. In the orderly confines indoors, they sometimes create studio work that's cramped and controlled. Milstead doesn't fall into this trap.

She does go for a calmer, more-deliberate stroke of the pastel stick once she's inside, but her big works are so inventive, compositionally and color-wise, that they're the furthest thing from restrained. She's accomplished the neat trick of transforming nature while staying free.

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