The Wild West

Etchings of Gene Kloss and recent watercolors of Farzad Nakhai paint different views of the Western landscape.

It was a watercolor kind of day at Tohono Chul Park a week ago Tuesday, when the heat cranked up to 100 degrees for the first time this year.

Inside the park's gallery, painter Farzad Nakhai was showing a suite of watercolors of the desert mountains around Tucson. Outside, the actual landscape rivaled Nakhai's ratcheted-up colors.

Sure it was hot, but the sky was a flawless cerulean, its unblemished blue curving all over the Tucson valley and its surrounding mountains. The westernmost peak of the Santa Catalinas loomed over the northwest-side park, its rock face sun-bleached peach and gray. And everywhere below were the yellowest of palo verde blossoms--in the park grounds, cascading down every untamed wash, jumping out of the front yards of every Foothills mini-estate. Their sun-yellow bloom, blowing against the sky's cerulean, was electric.

No wonder non-native artists have loved the Western landscape ever since the first ones showed up in the 19th century. Nakhai, an Iranian transplanted to Tucson, has found his subject on hikes into the mountains outside his adopted hometown, particularly in the wide-open Rincons.

Down the golden hill from Tohono Chul, at the foot of the mountain, Etherton Gallery at Joesler Village is showing the landscape etchings of an earlier newcomer to the West. The late Gene Kloss was a Californian who honeymooned in New Mexico in the '20s and, like so many artists of her generation, fell in love with the place and stayed. (She died at 93 in 1996.) A master printmaker, Kloss crafted etchings whose precision makes an interesting contrast to Nakhai's watercolored exuberance.

Nakhai relates in his artist's statement that he is "concerned with the idea of painting as an end in itself ... the landscape becomes the 'excuse.'" It's a pretty good excuse, though. The painter clearly loves the rocky, steep trails that surround the city, in Sabino Canyon, in Pima Canyon and even in farther away Madera Canyon, but he's particularly fond of the lower slopes of the Rincons.

"Fast Moving Clouds, Rincon Mountain," 2000, is the biggest and the best of the 17 paintings in his show. It's a fine view from below of storm clouds gathering over the mountaintops, seen from the hiker's vista way below. Wild strokes of gray and ultramarine make up the threatening sky, while the mountainside tumbles down to the foreground in loose swathes of green earth, yellow ochre and shots of pale rose madder.

A hiker in the Rincons gets a sweeping view of the whole valley. "Storm Clouds Over the Catalinas, Rincon Mountains," 1998, offers a view from the Rincons north and west to the Catalinas. Nakhai is a lover of wild West weather, and this picture again shows gray storm clouds moving in over the big mountain. Nakhai paints the upper peaks in characteristic blues and purples, and sketches out the canyons descending from the heights in light ochres rimmed in darks, especially deep earth greens.

The artist experiments with his watercolor applications as he goes, and his earliest works take advantage of the medium's classic transparency. "Autumn Gold, Pima Canyon," 1995, is a delicate wash of gold and yellows and pale greens, punctuated by bolder grays and deep greens. Some of the more recent paintings likewise have transparent passages--the liquid sky of "On the Way to Douglas Spring, Rincon Mountains," 2000, a watery merging of ultramarine and cerulean, is a case in point.

But in recent years, Nakhai has pushed his landscapes toward an abstraction of shape and color, pooling his colors into amoebae shapes that act as a shorthand for rocks, for foliage, for shrubs. And in going for bolder colors, he's upped the proportion of paint to water, with mixed results. They're not muddy exactly, but some of these denser bits, like the deep forest colors in "Gold, Blue and Green, Madera Canyon," 1999, have lost the lovely luminosity possible in sheer watercolors.

Nevertheless, the works have a vigor that corresponds with the wildness of the unpeopled landscape Nakhai prefers. There's always a sense of movement in these paintings, of breaking weather, of light moving in great waves over vast geological formations.

By contrast, the etchings of printmaker Kloss have a stillness that suggests moments caught quietly for all time. Kloss worked within a tradition of realism now almost lost in contemporary art, and instead of restlessly challenging classic techniques, she embraced them. Working in drypoint and aquatint, she knew how to use line and shading to build up volume, to suggest light and dark.

The black and white etching "Indian Summer," 1943, is a little beauty, a precise rendering of a classical New Mexico landscape. A long expanse of flat land, topped by mountains in the distance, lies beneath a big sky. Like Nakhai, she loves to make wild Western clouds, but unlike him she uses careful lines to build up her volumes, to suggest the sun breaking out behind the clouds.

Her landscape is tamer than Nakhai's imagined wilderness too. True, she's got a few Ansel Adams-style pictures of the sublime--bold peaks reaching to the heavens ("A Late Sunlight on the Cliffs") and elaborate skyscapes hinting at the hand of the divine ("Clouds at Sunset"). Most of her pictures, though, demonstrate the hand of the human.

Tidy buildings sit in the distance in "Indian Summer," comfortably at one with the terrain. In "Adobes in the Snow" Kloss approvingly shows off the kind of architecture so a part of the earth it's made of the earth's own mud. And even "A Late Sunlight on the Cliffs," shows a man who's boldly ascended the summit, making claim to his dominion.

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