Filler Rollin', Rollin'...

A New Exhibit At Tohono Chul Commemorates The Out-West Road Trip.
By Margaret Regan

MY FRIENDS CHRIS and Eileen, who didn't meet and marry until they were grown-up reporters, by chance took identical family trips when they were little kids in the late '50s, early '60s. Chris' family was Italian out of Ohio, Eileen's Irish out of New Jersey, and both carloads were determined to see the West, the whole West and nothing but the West, in three weeks.

That meant that each of the families spent a day, two at the most, in Arizona, all of it up in our Northern tier. An hour at Monument Valley, another at the Painted Desert, one at the Petrified Forest and, Chris swears, a half-hour at the Grand Canyon. Then it was off again, to the Great Salt Lake or the redwoods or some such, Dad in command at the wheel ("No, we can't stop now!"), Mom patient beside him ("But, dear..."), the kids squawking in the back seat.

An entertaining new exhibition at Tohono Chul Gallery celebrates--or maybe commemorates is the better word, considering the excruciating memories of the former back-seat captives--exactly the kind of classic American road trip that found the Satullos and the Kennas Arizona-bound so many years ago. Just Travelin' Through uses contemporary art, documentary photographs and historical postcards and trinkets to take a look at the long sweep of tourism in the Grand Canyon State.

It's a mostly light-hearted affair, complete with hands-on activities to keep the kids entertained as their parents cruise through, but it has its serious side. Almost by definition, Arizona tourism is about the depredations of humans on what was once wilderness, and the oddball roadside clutter that Chris and Eileen must have seen is now vanishing.

A couple of the paintings, such as Stephen F. Morath's cartoon-colored "Arizona Noche," poke fun at today's slicker tourism scene, but the most engaging work brings back to life the delicious mom-and-pop regionalism that flourished on the back roads before the interstates came in.

Image Those wonderfully eccentric road signs, from the distant days before the golden arches insinuated themselves like a plague in every corner of the land, come to new life in meticulous drawings by Warren Anderson. Documenting actual signs, the colored-pencil drawings deliberately mimic the style of old postcards. "Route 66 Skyscraper" reproduces a diner sign. Delightfully encased in an outline of the Empire State Building, the sign commands "E-A-T" in golden letters descending down the skyscraper. "Highway 66 Drive-In, AAA," is the footnote below, just in case you confused your back-country location with Manhattan. Its charm just might have been powerful enough to entice a dad hellbent on reaching the state line by nightfall to stop and feed the troops.

Photographer Cy Lehrer is attracted to old Route 66 too, but his black-and-white photos document the disintegration that followed when the Arizona segment was replaced by Interstate 40. One picture, "'40 Chevy," even shows a rotting car at the edge of the old road. Its blacktop and white center line can still be glimpsed where it's always seen best, through the windshield of the car. Another shot takes in a rundown "Deluxe Motel" in Seligman, its antique Coca-Cola machine still standing sentinel outside, and still another, "Apparition," pictures an abandoned gas station as a white ghost hovering over the darkened land.

Lehrer's mournful photos and Anderson's nostalgic drawings are worlds apart from the angry works of Phoenix painter Kay Emig, who uses the old motel signs and logos as symbols of rot and disorder in the West. Emig took her own road trip in 1994, photographing some 612 small-time motels. Their funny neon letters and drawings turn up in "The Skyline Before the Last Gleam," twisted into the ribs of a giant skeleton baking in the desert. The composition is at once a take-off on the cliché of the cow skull in cowboy paintings and the "natural cathedral" 19th-century landscape painters and photographers were so fond of discerning in the West.

In Emig's hands, the signs signify broken promises, their flashy neon colors siren calls to danger. "This cathedral," Emig says in a statement, "sustains a vicious kind of life that tends to emerge after dark." Is she thinking of Timothy McVeighs lurking in trailer parks? Fife Symingtons plundering the cities? Sure, the West, as they say, is littered with broken dreams, but let's put the blame where it lies. Spare the cheerful small-time coffee pot signs and El Dorado banners of the mom-and-pop roadside attractions, and send a little venom the way of the marauding McD's and Holiday Inns. It's their corporate facades that are doing their damnedest to wipe out the material culture of regionalism, that clutter roadways from I-95 in the South to I-10 in the West with nauseatingly bland anonymity, leaching the "there" out of everywhere.

Photographer Mark Klett's concerns are for the human impact on a fragile landscape. "Picnic on the Edge of the Rim, Grand Canyon" displays the plastic bags and fruit of a modern picnic juxtaposed against the chiseled rocks, along with the legs and feet of the picnicker (the photographer himself?) posed placidly on the brink. Klett's fine work demonstrates that humans are incontrovertibly here, and their presence, however well-meant, cannot help but change the land.

Bill Baker's "Driving Past Elephant Feet" serves as a signature photo for the show. It depicts two elephantine rock formations up on the Navajo Reservation. But these natural wonders are not alone, not by any means. A blacktop curves across the horizon, hard by the rocks, and a car drives merrily along it. Maybe the tourists in this car will leave the territory as quickly as the Satullo and Kenna clans did, maybe not. But even if they're just travelin' through, thousands more will quickly, inevitably replace them.

Just Travelin' Through continues through August 25 at Tohono Chul Park Exhibit Hall, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte, one stoplight west of Oracle on Ina Road. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Park grounds are open daily 7 a.m. to sunset. Suggested donation $2. For more information call 742-6455. TW

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