Seriously Playful

Gregory Euclide manages to point out Tucson's unsustainable elements in a fun and inviting way

Do those three words conjure up a golf course to you? No? Then you've got something in common with Gregory Euclide.

Euclide is the creator of a gigantic Tucson diorama that is sprawled all over the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery; his splendid walk-in installation includes a map, mountains, plots of land and multiple buckets of water.

Hailing from the well-watered upper Midwest, the Wisconsin-bred Minneapolis artist is known for making 3-D work that ponders the nature of artificial and natural landscapes. He had never been to Tucson when curator Brooke Grucella invited him to create a site-specific piece in the gallery. He went onto the Web to begin his research, Grucella recounts, and one of the first things that popped up was a Tucson tourism site with that tagline: Real. Natural. Arizona.

Fair enough, but below the words was a photograph of one of the desert city's emerald-green golf courses, about as unreal and unnatural as a landscape can get.

The delicious irony of the slogan, paired with an arid turf that's been diced, sliced, irrigated and fertilized beyond recognition, was tailor-made for Euclide. And it provided a ready name for his Tucson piece: Real, Natural and Unsustainable, with emphasis on the Unsustainable.

Euclide drew a cartographically correct map of Tucson on the gallery's concrete floor by pouring dry brown dirt in a series of precise lines. He combined stones and sand with an artificial molding material called eurocast to create new, manmade plots of land; these strange platforms—half real, half fake—soar up into the air like whirling dust devils. He used drippy acrylic paint to splash images of the Catalinas and Rincons onto the walls, and he rendered the Santa Ritas in crinkly brown butcher paper.

But he made 10 of Tucson's golf courses the focal point of this small universe. They're represented by plastic buckets full of the water they need; each of them is them labeled with a local course's name: Dell Ulrich, Starr Pass, El Rio and so on.

In Euclide's Tucson, these "unsustainable"—read: water-guzzling—golf courses hold up the whole fragile ecology and threaten it at the same time. The buckets are tethered together in a network of crisscrossed white strings, and they give ballast to those flying whirlwinds of land. Everything depends on everything else: If a single bucket were to be removed, the entire installation would come tumbling down.

Grucella has been filling the buckets religiously, she says, to keep the water from evaporating and to ward off the collapse of this micro-universe. As the water goes, so goes Tucson.

These themes are serious, to be sure, but they belie the playfulness of the piece. Euclide is a high school art teacher in Minneapolis; he recently told blogger Kirsten Incorvaia that "teaching is a huge source of joy in my life." That joy spills over into this work. It's like a schoolkid's diorama on steroids, a grade-school project spun out of control. Part walk-in map, part Monopoly game gone wrong, part celebration of the outdoors, Real, Natural and Unsustainable is just plain fun.

True to classroom form, Euclide enlisted a rotating team of eight UA grad students to help him put the piece together. Grucella says she was on the job with him during the five days it took to harvest the materials and assemble them. Euclide is what used to be called an earth artist: He uses hardly any official "art" materials; instead, he gathers local flora—leaves, moss, stems and sticks—from whatever landscape he finds himself in.

In Tucson, he and the team went to the dry Rillito riverbed to dig up sand; elsewhere, they collected tumbleweeds, scraps of brown palm bark and moss. But given that Euclide is targeting the uneasy coexistence of artificial and natural, he also used some manufactured materials: white powdered fertilizer, molding material, splintery scraps of lumber and spools of white string.

Back in the gallery, Euclide tried to make his map as accurate as possible. The whole scheme is appropriately oriented north and south, with the painted Santa Catalina Mountains on the gallery's north-facing wall, the Rincons on the east. Before he painted the mountains, he projected their outlines onto the wall, and you can see his faint line drawings sketching out the familiar peaks. But he painted them almost as abstractions, nicely messy liquid passages of dark and light blue, dripping down the walls in lines. His crinkly paper Rincons are just as delightful.

At the outer edges, Euclide's Tucson is choked by cookie-cutter developments. The tiny white McMansions rising out of his outer-ring suburbs look like they're straight out of a Monopoly game, heightening the impression that you're inside a giant board game. Grucella says Euclide cast them himself with the use of a mold.

All the unseen people living in these houses are using up our desert's dwindling water supply, and just to rub it in, Euclide has given them turquoise pools twinkling out back. Poisonous fertilizer powder pushes the destruction metaphor even further; to suggest the density of these developments, Euclide has made row upon row of white triangles out of the carefully poured chemical powder. The triangle, Grucella notes, is the architectural symbol for a resort community, and these triangle grids stretch out for miles across the formerly pristine desert.

Euclide got a couple of things wrong. The golf-course buckets are roughly located where they should be for the most part, but the westside's El Rio is wrongly situated in the northeast. Starr Pass is way out in the northwest hinterlands, instead of where it should be, west and a little south of downtown.

And the whirlwind structures somehow don't ring entirely true. Euclide has woven together tumbleweeds and palm bark for the bases, and the flat odd plots of land on top are covered with stones and trees made of sticks. They're picturesque and evocative of the winds that sometimes sail through Tucson, but they don't really suggest Tucson's flat central valley. And I missed our saguaros, which, as far as I could see, don't figure into the piece at all.

Still, those are minor quibbles. It was a pleasure to wander Euclide's Tucson, deciphering his giant map, deconstructing his clever uses of materials and, more soberly, pondering the madness of development in a parched region quickly running out of ground water.

Just where is Arizona headed? To the real and the natural? Or to the overbuilt and the destroyed?

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