B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
IT'S A THURSDAY afternoon and Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay are deep into day four of putting together their big show at the Tucson Museum of Art. Davis is bent over a wooden mold set up on the floor on the museum's upper level. Stone by stone by stone, she's painstakingly constructing a piece called "Arizona Rivers Series." The work, a typical entry in the Davis/Asay Touching Earth show, features five long rectangles of pebbles and grains of sand, each length culled from the sandbed of a single Arizona river. Each strand is a different color, one for every river: ochre, grey-white, multicolor and so on. Davis takes the tiny stones out of the carefully labeled plastic bags where they are stored and inserts them, gradually going from larger to smaller, into wooden frames that will later be removed.
Yonder down the ramp, at the next-lower level in the museum's odd architecture of sloping alleys and island galleries, her husband, Asay, is kneeling on the floor, too. Asay is immersed entirely in red rock, the kind that drenches the Sedona landscape in vivid salmon. Asay has a big spiral drawn on the floor and he's coloring it with bits of stone. Like his wife, he's building the piece, "Red Tank Spiral," rock by rock by rock.
The big opening of Davis and Asay's show, TMA's 10th annual Stonewall exhibition, is set for the following evening and the pair has a long way to go to be ready. But there's no hurrying this kind of art-making.
"It's like a pointillist painting, only in three dimensions," explains Asay, a burly gray-bearded man in green. "It's slow, but it accumulates pretty fast."
The Prescott artists, collaborators since 1983, are best known in Tucson for their "Inverted Trees," the series of upside-down painted red trees north of the lake in Reid Park, and their low-key boulders lining the sidewalks of Mountain Avenue. They make an interesting choice for the Stonewall show, which annually gives a gigantic solo exhibition to an Arizona or New Mexico artist. Asay and Davis' work, based though it is on organic materials, is elegantly modernist, even minimalist.
Their medium, as they say, is their message. The material that Asay and Davis use to make their art--whether it's river rock, flower petals, leaf litter, ponderosa pine slabs or stripped ocotillo bones--is also their subject of that art. Their idea is to present the raw materials in a state as close to nature as possible, while making them different enough--stripped of bark, sorted by color or size, isolated from their surroundings--to jolt viewers' sensibilities.
"The whole focus is the medium, the material itself," Davis says. She's a small, tidy figure in blue jeans, her hair tucked up out of the way of billowing sand dust. Their spirals of rocks and great nests of stripped woods are meant "to bring the viewer into fresh contact with the materials, to reconnnect with what they are as natural materials.
"The next step is to connect them (the viewers) with nature as a whole.... This show is about Arizona, and Arizona materials, its trees, rocks and desert."
The gathering of their materials is a ritual in itself. Davis and Asay strike out into the wilderness, collecting wood and leaves they find on the forest floor or making use of permits from the U.S. Forest Service to cut trees in places where thinning has already been authorized. Likewise, they get quarrying licenses to gather their rocks. Sometimes, they make the artwork for the first time out in the land, photograph it, then dismantle it. "Ocotillo Midden," a big nest of stripped ocotillo sticks, curiously, luxuriously blonde, is now piled up on the museum's floor. But it first came to life in an ocotillo thicket in the desert.
Luckily for the imperatives of their deadline, not all 24 of the pieces in the show have to be constructed on site in the musuem. There is, for instance, "The Colors of Summer," a seven-part framed wall piece made up of gathered flower petals, sorted by color and compressed into a dense medley that's a bit like thick, natural paper. ("The colors won't last," Davis warns.) Another wall work celebrates the grandeur of the ponderosa pine, offering up a series of horizontal rounds cut from a pine trunk. "At Ground Level" is a series of pedestal sculptures, made of what Davis calls "leaf litter," the organic stuff she and her husband find under trees and bushes on the forest floor. The litter is mixed with glue and baked into big boxy shapes.
These works come closest to conventional art objects, despite the short life a work like the flower piece can expect to have: They can be easily packed up and displayed, and for that matter, sold. "Ocotillo Midden" and the various river rock pieces need to be made from scratch, again and again, each time they go to a show. And there's not much market for art that can be vaporized by a good swift wind or compromised by a stray kick.
"People ask, 'Why don't you glue it down?' " Davis reports. "But to me it has such a fragile power this way. I wouldn't want to make it permanent."
In a way, the works' fragility is another part of the artists' message. Nature is grand and beautiful, but it also needs attention and care. They consider themselves environmental artists, Asay says, but he sometimes worries that their elegant, silent works don't make the political points that more explicit, clamorous art does.
"I sometimes feel bad that a lot of environmental artists are more overtly making a point of taking action," Asay says slowly, pondering the point. "We are seducing people. But I don't know whether it's making converts or not."
Touching Earth, the Contemporary Southwest Images X Stonewall Foundation Series Exhibition, a show of works by Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay, continues through December 10 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors and students, free for members and children under 12 and free for all on Tuesdays. For more information call 624-2333.
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