A Southerner born and bred, she was entranced by the snow that blanketed the stark northern landscape. Everywhere she looked, the rolling farmlands were colored in a muted palette of white and gray. The trees, as good as dead for the winter, traced their bare black branches against a sky drained of pigment.
Suddenly, a flash of orange interrupted this delicate monochrome.
It was a plastic snow fence. Stretched between metal rails, its orange mesh curved uphill, growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared at the horizon, where the snow met the sky.
Robinson got out of the car, camera at the ready.
"I had walked into a Japanese ink drawing splashed with color," she told an interviewer for Photo-Eye magazine, "and I stood there in awe of its simple complexity. Here, on the side of snowy highway in December, I experienced a connection between a waking and dreaming world, a place where time seemed suspended."
The lovely color photo she shot, "Running Fence," became one of the first in her poetic series Snowbound, part of which is now on view at Etherton Gallery in a three-person show.
"Running Fence" is simplicity itself. Orange curls across a field of white; a damp gray sky edges down against the white hills. The picture not only meditates on color and shape; it considers the place of humans in nature. The fence is meant to be a sturdy barrier that holds back the snow drifts. Instead, it's fragile and small, dwarfed by the vast whiteness all around it.
All the works in Snowbound capture the stillness and loveliness of the northern winter, and its metaphorical undertones of sleep and death. Man-made objects almost always intrude into Robinson's ethereal white landscapes, but like that snow fence, they can't compete with the natural forces swirling around them. In these pictures of fir trees and ranch houses and meadows and ball fields, snow erases color and muffles sound. It softens edges and simplifies shapes. And sometimes it obliterates.
In "Valhalla," shot along Lake Ontario, signs lining the beach normally warn swimmers about waves and such. Here, in winter, they've been swallowed up by ice that's frozen into giant fantastical shapes jutting up to the sky like Valhalla's mythical guardians. One of the more dramatic of the Snowbound images, the photo has a sky alternating between patches of blue gray sky and white clouds. Below this chilly celestial drama, the lake itself has begun to freeze.
The ice-fishing huts on another solid lake in "Invisible City" are tiny yellow and blue cubes, marooned in a giant white emptiness. A few human figures standing alongside them are so miniscule, they're nearly invisible, and inconsequential.
Most of Robinson's pictures are like the simplest of watercolors or drawings, with delicate strokes merely suggesting form. A basketball net on a long slender pole is the only clear image in "Solo"; beyond it, a row of blurry fir trees and rooftops disappear into a blizzard. "Erasure" is a simple geometric abstraction of geometry in brown and white: Patches of dead grass poke through the snowmelt.
Robinson's gift for symmetry helps boost her vision of a world clarified and simplified by snow. Dead center in "Mirage," a wooden dock stretches straight out into a frozen lake, its gray-brown boards tracing out a vanishing point. In "Harmony," a photo that's just about perfect, a chain-link baseball back fence frames the frozen white landscape. Six trees strung along the murky, tamped-down horizon are visible through the open loops of the fence.
"Veranda View" is an exquisite look through a gray painted porch out into a snowy landscape. A row of bare brown tree trunks echo the wooden pillars on the porch. Meshing geometric and organic shapes, this one uses architecture to frame nature. The man-made and the natural are in equilibrium.
A recent transplant to Tucson, Robinson made her serene snow scenes in digital chromogenic prints, a medium that's surprisingly lush. The full suite of Snowbound photos is in a book of the same name (Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2007). The Wall Street Journal wrote that along with Jackie Nickerson's Faith, Robinson "take(s) the prize for handsomest book(s) most fitting for the season."
Still, it's a shock to go from Robinson's austere northern images, hung in Etherton's entry gallery, to the main room. Kate Breakey and Chris Enos both exhibit works grounded in the Southwest, exploding with color. And while Robinson sticks to pure photography, the others work their photographic surfaces with various kinds of paint.
Breakey, who lives in the desert northwest of Tucson, is well known for her Small Deaths pictures. She makes startling blow-ups of dead birds and flowers, and lovingly paints in every feather, every petal, to create monumental mementi mori. She's got plenty of these arresting images here, including a sweet dead "Barn Owl," resting its head on its shoulder, and a gloriously red "Vermillion Flycatcher."
This time around, she's also added a cactus series, taming juvenile specimens by imprisoning them in pots and positioning them in domestic interiors. But like the poor deceased birds, each of her cacti, radiant-colored, is a distinct and prickly personality.
In the Portal series, Enos, an artist new to the gallery, makes large color photos of Chaco Canyon. She immediately mixes her media, printing the images on canvas and painting over them. Unlike Breakey, she paints only in patches, creating a kind of dizzying surrealism. Photographed "real" passages alternate with imagined painted passages. Blue skies show up under the stone walls, instead of up overhead where they belong. Doorway openings sometimes lead to dark tunnels, sometimes to clouds, depending on how Enos deploys her brushes.
The idea--appropriate for this liminal time of year--is that neither time nor space can be entirely known. It's the same insight you can get in Snowbound's wintry world.