Tempests Transformed

Contemporary artists at Tohono Chul revisit the West’s wild skies

Last week, just one day after an ice storm rolled in on dark clouds and pummeled Tucson with hail, the sky over Tohono Chul Park was calm. It was gray and overcast, to be sure, but not violent.

It was a different story inside the park's Exhibit Hall.

Bolts of white lightning exploded jaggedly over a midnight blue sky in Jeff Smith's photograph "Bear Canyon Blue." Likewise in a William Lesch time-lapse photo taken from A Mountain, thunder clouds colored a dangerous electric amber gathered in huge formations over downtown Tucson, hurling lightning bolts to the tiny skyscrapers below.

More calmly, in Kate Breakey's "Sunset Ranbow, Tucson," a hand-colored photograph, a great half sun set in a burst of orange against gray and blue clouds.

These three big-name Tucson artists join 30 others in "The Sky Above," a summer show at Tohono Chul that captures the western sky in every mood, from raging to restful, and renders it in all media, from digital photography to glass and buttons.

Seriously. Barbara Brandel's "Stitching with Ansel" faithfully reproduces Ansel Adams's famous "Moon and Half Dome" in buttons, thread and black velvet. A big white button plays the part of Adams's big white moon hanging over Yosemite, and the crevices of the cliff are recreated by hundreds of buttons in 50 shades of gray, registering each and every Anselian color shift from dove to charcoal to black. It's a hoot.

The show marks an interesting change in curatorial direction for Tohono Chul, where the regular program of group shows has tended toward traditional and folk art. James Schaub, who became curator last fall, most recently was co-director of Atlas, a contemporary gallery downtown that shut its doors in the wake of the neighborhood's skyrocketing rents.

"My aesthetic is fairly abstract," Schaub says. "I love traditional but I also like things that are conceptual and a little more abstract. Things that are more unexpected."

Schaub's rep in the arts community also likely brought in bigger names like Breakey, whose large-scale painted photos have led to exhibitions around the country and multiple books. (She's regularly represented in Tucson by Etherton, as are Lesch and Smith.)

A large sculpture by Ted Wade Springer fits into Schaub's category of the unexpected. "From the Center Out" is a massive altar-like piece, with a slab of burnt wood and melted iron extending across two thick pillars of etched concrete. The work doesn't so much visualize the sky as commemorate a memorable art evening under a pitch-black Tucson sky.

Springer recounts in an artist's note that "on a gorgeous Tucson night" he was outdoors pouring iron into a wooden mold when "it instantaneously erupted into a fireworks display 30 to 40 feet into the black night."

The burnt offerings that were left after the conflagration turned into an homage to the beautiful skies with which we are blessed.

Kathleen Velo's underwater photos, colored a lovely, liquid turquoise, are also a decidedly unconventional choice for a sky show. Velo submerges photographic paper at the bottom of a body of water—in this case, the Colorado River—and with an assistant illuminates it with light. That flash of brilliance triggers a photographic metamorphosis on the treated paper, and creates an underwater photogram. There is a sky connection: her piece "Imperial Dam: Colorado River" gives us a view of the sky, as seen from the bottom of a river.

Astronomer Adam Block, who works at the UA observatory on Mount Lemmon, shot an image of outer-space nebula—an interstellar cloud—through his telescope. The starburst print, now fused to aluminum, is a Fourth of July-worthy explosion of points of light against a wild sky in white and red. Block notes this work is the "highest-resolution, full-color image of this nebula to date."

Margit Kagerer's works look like paintings but they're not. They're quilts, sort of, made of fabric that Kagerer has dyed, cut and stitched to create painterly cubist portraits of the Arizona sky. Kagerer dresses her skies in two guises. "Clouds—Afternoon" is a spikey geometry of blue skies and yellow clouds rolling over an ochre horizon and red-brown mesas. "Clouds– Monsoon" is a tempest, a heavenly battle of clashing trapezoids and triangles in black and midnight blue.

And David Adix makes images of clouds before the storm. His sweet little pieces, three oil pastels on tin, picture the billowy white clouds and clear azure skies that we need to see before the rains can fall. These sky scenes are calm and pretty, with thick strokes of pastel going every which way. But between the lines we can glimpse the silvery tin, warnings, perhaps, of the storms to come.

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