Canned, Ungrand Land

TMA Landscape Exhibits Take Us From The Past Glories Of The Grand Canyon To The Architectural Pits Of Modern Tucson

NO DOUBT ABOUT it, the Grand Canyon is the most recognizable Arizona icon. And as of last weekend, the Grand Canyon is unfurled in all its familiar multi-colored glory at the Tucson Museum of Art, courtesy of a gigantic 24-panel painting by Joseph DiGiorgio.

"Grand Canyon Suite" is a panoramic oil on canvas completed back in 1985 in DiGiorgio's studio. It lovingly chronicles the canyon's changing lights and colors over a 24-hour period, each panel representing a single hour. Newly donated by the artist to the museum, the work updates the grand tradition of western monumental landscape through a surprising color-dot painting style--violet dots against orange, silver against midnight--that the museum staff has dubbed "post-pointillist." A companion show displays the painting's art historical forebears with Canyon works gleaned from the museum's permanent collection, the best being some fine 1920s etchings by George Elbert Burr.

Review DiGiorgio, who displayed his "Prospect Park" paintings two seasons ago at the University of Arizona Museum, does a fine job evoking the Grand Canyon's astonishing palette. The dark blues of early morning give way to the bleached colors of midday and then intensify into the purple and orange brilliance of late afternoon. The final panels revert back to night shades and the pink flash of the dawn's early light. DiGiorgio's painting does occasionally lapse into shrill, even vulgar color (never let it be said the extravagant Grand Canyon has a modernist austerity), but he can't be faulted for trying his hand at re-creating Arizona's greatest natural wonder.

The trouble is that at this late moment in the 20th century an unpolluted, unpeopled Grand Canyon hardly represents Arizona's authentic visual self. While the museum has devoted its grander upper spaces to a somewhat old-fashioned celebration of what the state once was, a show in its lowly basement galleries actually captures the truth of what the state is now. Familiar Places, the latest in the Directions shows spotlighting local artists, exhibits some 34 black-and-white photographs of Tucson by Cy Lehrer, a local photographer with more than 100 exhibitions around the country to his credit.

You won't find any nice pictures of saguaros or Finger Rocks or even San Xavier Mission here. No, Lehrer's pictures painfully portray the real Tucson, awash in broad asphalt streets and vast parking lots, cluttered with slipshod architecture hardly deserving of the name, nearly devoid of congenial pedestrian spaces. With its stark pictures of strip malls and ungainly suburban developments, this courageous show coolly documents a new kind of urban design whose chief characteristic is anti-design. In the brave new American city it depicts, commerce is king, the automobile its crown prince.

Photographed early on Sunday mornings, flooded with brilliant light and deep shadows, the pictures have no cars or people to distract us from the strident ugliness of their buildings. In "Foley's Department Store, Tucson Mall," 1995, Lehrer envisions the boxy building as a triumphant temple of commerce. It presides ostentatiously on the horizon line, arrogantly usurping the monumental function of grand public buildings of the past. But where public buildings once evoked a sense of grandeur through visual links to history or culture or region, the mall department store evokes only the need to use every bit of space for stuff to sell. No public gardens surround this temple either. Instead there's a sprawling parking lot, suffocating the despoiled landscape.

Lehrer's compendium of commercial catastrophes continues with "Campbell Fair Shopping Center," 1995, a photograph of one of those anonymous beige shopping strips that regularly assault our eyes at every thoroughfare. In "Toys 'R' Us, Broadway Boulevard," 1995, he grimly focuses on sprawling warehouse stores whose commitment to aesthetics is as nonexistent as their commitment to customer service or the local community. "Sun Bluff and Wagon Bluff Drives, Rancho Arboleda," 1996, all tile roofs and sickly tree saplings, shows one of the appalling new subdivisions now erupting everywhere on the fringes of the city like the lesions of an unstoppable plague. Their main design element is the massive blank doors of two-car garages, lined up along the bladed, dusty streets like tombstones row on row.

The photographer also assembles an assortment of major public buildings whose poor designs have done their own damage to the city. The museum show bravely includes Lehrer's "Tucson Museum of Art," 1996, a fine, critical photograph of that arrogant building. Shot with a view to the south, the picture shows the museum's large, intrusive roofline jutting out aggressively. Constructed in the early '70s in the wake of urban renewal, it's a perfect example of that era's disastrous architecture, when the high ideals of modernist architecture had been diluted into plain, ugly buildings that scorned history, context and regionalism. The museum's sweeping walls and sharp angles do real violence to the small-scale historic houses that remain around it.

Other inelegant buildings in Lehrer's photos also recall the unfortunate confluence of the worst of modern architecture with the years of urban renewal. "Church Avenue from Broadway Boulevard," 1995, pictures one of the county buildings that rose up on the grave of Tucson's leveled historic center. Like most of the other buildings that replaced the old Mexican barrio at the center of town, it's a forbidding, inhuman structure that helped put a screeching end to street life at the west end of downtown. Nor do some of the newer public projects, such as those seen in "Broadway Boulevard Entrance," 1997, and "Main Library, Stone Avenue," 1997, suggest that we're now more conscious of good design. Could there be any public structure more stupid and alienating than that new Broadway entrance to downtown?

It's not easy to look at Lehrer's show, but then it's heartbreaking to look at much of Tucson these days, too. But it's an important exhibition that should be required viewing for political leaders and residents alike. Because if somebody doesn't do something soon about the visual hell that Tucson is fast becoming, the city's Southwest charm and its desert's subtle beauties will become a thing of the past. Come to think of it, they'll be a lot like that undefiled Grand Canyon of Joseph DiGiorgio's nostalgic imaginings.

Familiar Places, photographs by Cy Lehrer, continues through October 17 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Grand Canyon Suite: Joseph DiGiorgio and a companion show of other Grand Canyon works, continues through October 26. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 general, $1 for seniors and students, free for members and children under 12. Free admission for all on Tuesdays. For more information, call 624-2333. TW

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