Unfamiliar Road

Tile muralist and transit activist Stephen Farley turns to mail-slot panoramas.

Stephen Farley is best known around Tucson for two very urban projects--one, his tile mural on the concrete canyons of downtown's Broadway underpass, and two, his campaign to knock some sense about public transportation into this car-crazy town.

The first has won him fans in all quarters. There's something very right about the way he memorialized ordinary downtowners in Windows to the Past, Gateway to the Future, the Broadway project, even if the mural's photographic ghosts from long ago make the current downtown look painfully deserted. The second, particularly his advocacy of light rail and his denunciation of the city's failed transportation tax (read: inner-city-neighborhood destruction tax), have won him some decided enemies among the city's prominent cementheads, including car dealers and the politicians they've purchased.

But a new show at the Temple Gallery unveils the inner country boy in this urban activist. All this time, in between rallying the public transportation troops and doing graphic design for the oral history books published by Voices Inc., a nonprofit led by his wife, Regina Kelly, Farley has been making art. The success of the Broadway underpass helped him win public art commissions out of state. And his subsequent travels have allowed him to venture out into open country, far from the madding crowds and cars of the city. Stephen Farley: Panoramic Photographs is all about Stephen Farley, pastoral artist.

Most of the 47 color photographs in this handsome show conjure up the loveliness of the unmarred landscape. Wintry forests in Ohio, their spare black branches decked with white snow, trace icy lace patterns across the horizon ("Oak Hill, Everett, Snow"). The rolling open country of northern Arizona, unfurling a palette of green, ochre and pink, stretches out into infinity ("Glen Creek, White Mountains Apache Reservation, Arizona"). Closer to home, the saguaros rise up against the Catalinas and the Tucsons, and pretty-as-a-postcard pictures of desert flowers abound.

These digital inkjet prints, so detailed they record every pricker, every fold of a cactus, are cropped in an extreme format. Whether vertical or horizontal, they're narrow, just 8 inches wide, and long, anywhere from 24 inches to 72 inches or more. Sometimes Farley tacks two photographic pieces together (and not always too carefully), extending his panoramas into long diptychs. The sensation can be like looking at nature through a mail slot: You peer through and see a tiny slice of the big world out there.

Most of the time, the yin-yang contrast between format and subject, rigid slot and sprawling wilderness, works well, focusing a viewer's attention on a piece of nature that might have gone otherwise unremarked. It's particularly effective in the long horizontal pictures of open country, the Ohio farmland disappearing into woods in the distance ("Mail Pouch, Lincoln Highway, Ohio"), or the Arizona canyons cascading into each other ("Wash, Molino Basin, Catalina Mountains"). And it's good with the very vertical as well, the steep slope and tall skinny pines in "Genuine, near Eagar, Arizona," and the close-up portraits of a single tree trunk or one significant saguaro.

But on occasion the narrowness of the photographs destroys the panorama. The vista chafes under its space restrictions in the diptych "Ventana Canyon, Tucson," a horizontal saguaros and mountains picture that decapitates the giant cacti at crucial points. You find yourself squinting in frustration, longing to see the peaks and sky.

Farley is too serious a thinker--and too realistic--to picture a landscape entirely unmolested by humans. "There are stories of wilderness which has thrived adjacent to civilization, and stories that make you cry," he says in an artist's statement.

Thus the Mail Pouch barn sits comfortably within its Ohio farmland, but the power plant ("Ohio River, Power Plant, near Marietta, Ohio") does not. This unlovely photo is the only one marred by cars, which zip along the riverfront highway; the towers rise up into the dull sky like twin mistakes. But Farley the photographer is not obsessed with the depredations of cars; he casts a baleful eye on other human foibles too. He detects litter in otherwise unspoiled scenes, a beer can among the pine needles in "Genuine, near Eagar, Arizona," a water bottle left behind by a hiker in Marshall Gulch. Human-caused fires get some attention, too. A vertical shot from a Tucson front yard takes in a tidy array of flagstones and cacti and zooms up the mountain to the billowing smoke of last summer's Bullock Fire in the Catalinas.

And in spite of his lobbying for buses and trains, on his road trips to remote places, Farley became enchanted by the proverbial ribbon of highway. Like so many artists before him, he delights in the blacktop curving into the horizon, particularly in his beautifully lit Northern Arizona pictures. In "West of Eagar, Arizona," the violet road, complete with classic telephone pole and receding fence, travels round a hill. A field is rendered emerald green, and the sky made cobalt, by the unearthly Arizona light.

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