The Boss Ditch

The Grand Canyon is the muse for artists in TMA's new wide-ranging show

When artist Jack Balas went up to the Grand Canyon in 2002, he found himself less interested in the sublime landscape opening up before him than in the teeming humanity standing on its edge.

His painting "Rumor," a mix of oil, enamel and ink on two canvas panels now on view at the Tucson Museum of Art, gives rather cursory attention to the canyon's famous colors and cliffs. He's loosely sketched out their lineaments in an un-pretty brown and beige, reserving his best efforts for the tourists who flock there by the millions.

In a series of small snapshot-size paintings tumbling down the center of the canvas, he's painted visitors gazing out into the distance, families posing for photos just steps away from the abyss, a teenager listening to tunes on earphones while contemplating the immortal.

Everyone seems entranced by the canyon's almost unimaginable depth and distances, and their curiosity and awe make an apt coda for the exhibition, The Grand Canyon: From Dream to Icon.

This big new show of work by more than 50 artists, running through January, fills the museum's upper galleries. Curated by Julie Sasse, who was recently promoted to TMA's chief curator, Grand Canyon is a sprawling affair that crosses multiple time periods and art styles.

Groundbreaking work by 19th-century expedition photographers hangs side by side with postcard-pretty paintings by today's Western realist artists. Out-there contemporary artists working with sand and dust and bathroom sinks get equal billing with famous early romantic painters such as Thomas Moran. Tourist-shop clichés adjoin Joseph Di Giorgio's massive pointillist canvases chronicling 24 hours of the canyon's changing light.

Were it not so focused on that iconic piece of real estate that one early tourist called the boss ditch, I'd be tempted to say the show is all over the map.

But Grand Canyon is an engaging attempt to ferret out why explorers and artists and writers and tourists have been so fascinated by the canyon for so long. If Sasse's inquiry does not proceed in chronological order, it nevertheless takes a stab at explaining, as Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne memorably phrased it in his book How the Canyon Became Grand.

The canyon first came to the attention of white America in the early 1870s, when the federal government, to start on a project of Western exploration and development, mounted assorted expeditions to document the geology of the unknown territories. Photographers seasoned by the Civil War's battlefield traveled with the scientists, and provided the American public with their first photos of the Western frontier.

Among the earliest works in the show is a pair of albumen prints by one of these hardy artists, the photographer John K. Hillers, who traveled with John Wesley Powell on his famous journey down the Colorado River into the canyon. Hillers' sepia-toned "Grand Canyon of the Colorado Looking East," from about 1872, helped set the parameters for the zillions of photos that would follow--and also set a fairly high notch on the machismo scale that tends to measure Grand Canyon art.

Hillers had to climb up a steep precipice with his bulky equipment to get a view from a suitably high overlook. His viewfinder took in the cascade of wedding-cake buttes stretching to the horizon, some in shadow, some in light and, far below, the gleaming Colorado snaking in between.

In an informative brochure, Sasse tells us that Hillers and Powell invited Moran on a subsequent expedition, and that Hillers gave the painter some of his earlier photos for reference. Moran went on to become one of the best-known romantic painters of the West. His chromolithograph "Grand Canyon of Arizona from Hermit Run Road," 1913, demonstrates how he also established visual patterns that would be followed by legions of canyon painters.

In this litho, he placed lovely curving trees in the foreground, to plant the viewer on solid earth, and followed up with endless buttes in delicate pinks and blues fading into the distance. Billowing white clouds above top off the composition. Moran sought the "sublime" in the landscape, as did so many 19th-century painters, so the light comes down from the heavens, endowing the majestic land with an almost religious significance.

Moran also helped bring in the hordes of tourists who would make the Grand Canyon art dodge so profitable. He did advertising paintings for the Santa Fe Railway, which began bringing passengers to the canyon on new-laid tracks by 1901. Eighteen years later, the Grand Canyon became a national park, and a national obsession. Incessantly pictured, the canyon became one of the most recognizable landscapes in the world.

The TMA show has acres of work by Moran's descendents, the Western realist painters who are sometimes naughtily called cowboy artists. Many are extremely capable, such as P.A. Nisbet, whose "Storm Break at Yaki Point, Grand Canyon" gets the prestige opening slot in the exhibition, right next to a rather dark 1942 Ansel Adams. Nisbet has painted a variation on the canyon cliché by adding snow to the ground and storm clouds to the sky. His painted light is a marvel, but his work, like those of his confreres, is hard to look at. The canyon has been pictured in this sublime way so often that you can hardly see it.

So what's an artist to do in the face of the unpaintable? Some artists in the show, less tied to tradition, manage to provide something new. Philadelphia painter Diane Burko flew overhead around 1970, and her giant 1980 colored pencil drawings, "Yavapai Point #1" and "#2," offer a fresh, bird's-eye view, with the buttes flattened somewhat and the colors refreshingly muted.

Tony Foster hiked around inside the canyon over a couple of years, and ultimately produced an enormous, gorgeous watercolor, "From Walapai Point Looking E.S.E. and Anasazi Arrowhead Studies," 2005. Beneath the delicately colored formations, Foster has lined up a long row of painted arrowheads, an homage to the Native Americans who once roamed the place.

In "Colorado River--Beaver Creek Breakdown," 1995, Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay celebrate the canyon's extraordinary hues by using actual river sand, gravel and rock as their pigments. They've elegantly organized their specimens by size and color on a long, low rectangular pedestal in white. The Colorado end glistens in tones from ocher to orange to rust, while the Beaver Creek side musters up only blacks and grays.

Tom Strich also uses real sand in an explicitly environmental work, "Homage to Glen Canyon," 1996. He's poured the sand into a real bathroom sink, and allowed a leaky spigot to drip water constantly into its rusty contours. Above, positioned on a bathroom cabinet, are three color photos of the Glen Canyon Dam, monument to our insatiable demand for the desert's scarce water.

Some of the best new works, like the oldest, are photographs. Jack Dykinga's "Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park," 2000, richly colored in blues and golds, is an ethereally beautiful water's-eye view. Navajo artist Will Wilson offers up "Auto-Immune Response #2," a 2005 triptych, in crisp black and white. His images of himself in triplicate, perched on a high vista point, suggest he's reclaiming lost land.

Mark Klett is best known for his Rephotographic Survey Projects, for which he reshot the landscapes first captured by the 19th-century expedition photographers. In "Around Toroweap Just Before and After Sundown ... ," 1986, he follows in the footsteps of Hillers, presenting a panorama made up of five gelatin silver prints.

But Klett adds a new element to the vista Hillers first saw more than 100 years earlier. A man's hat sits on the edge, testifying to the human presence--and awe--that's now an inextricable part of the canyon's identity.

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