Monday, October 28, 2013

Why the Desert?

When I show people the paintings I work on the question I get most frequently is “why the desert?”. The implication being that there are other landscapes of greater beauty that would be much more pleasant to escape to through the portal of a painting. The answer is “because the desert is the landscape that is the easiest for me to understand in the way that I want to understand a landscape; by its architecture.” I don’t mean to imply that I imagine the arches and the white cliffs being formed by some great, divine hand like sculptures of clay or hewn from a square cornered block of sandstone. I mean the chemical reactions and the physical principals and the biological factors that dictate every change in the landscape. This is true of any landscape on earth but it is the most visible here, in Utah. Waterways fill and evaporate due to changing weather; debris washed down forms a conglomerate stone; slightly acidic rain dissolves the mudstone; water freezing in these new cracks breaks the stone apart.

You can walk among the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome and imagine yourself among the ancient roman spectators at the Circus Maximus looking down at the spectacle on the track. In the same way you can stand next to the Virgin River at the base of Zion Canyon and imagine the water flowing backward, depositing the dust back into the walls; you can place the boulders back in the cracks from which they fell and eventually you’ll find yourself in a landscape that existed millions of years before Rome, millions of years before humans ever first set foot here. You can also stand and pull giant boulders out of the alcoves and smash them on the floor; revealing for an instant a grand arch over the canyon. The walls recede and crumble and you find yourself in a place where maybe humans are no more. Once you begin to understand the architecture then you can travel through time and see it 5 million years ago and 5 million years hence.

What I find striking about a great photograph or painting of the desert is its ability to convey the workings of this architecture with no words and no assumed understanding. An aerial picture of the waterpocket fold in Capitol Reef national park shows the evenly spaced, flat iron extrusions of earth in a way that suggests so readily the curving and dipping of existing rock. From the ground it is more difficult to create a picture that contains all of this information. The photographers that I mentioned liking in a previous post, Schulman with architecture and Gursky with all manner of manmade shapes, do it so well. Their photographs organize complex structures in such a way that an understanding of the subject is transmitted, beyond just what is shown in the photograph. They make the viewer think about the mind that designed the house or the hands that arranged the items on the supermarket shelf.

However with nature the forces that crafted the landscape have no form that we can observe and no consciousness that we can relate to, which makes exposing the workings of those forces more difficult. In paintings I’ve tried to approach this in a number of ways. The very first paintings depicted exaggerated colored banding of the sandstone. This is one of the first things that one notices when looking at the desert landscape for the first time and one of the features that provokes one’s first questions about how it was formed. After I learned more about the way that places like Arches National Park formed I started to find these exaggerated colors to be ridiculous and abandoned this idea.

I began to limit the variation in color and focus instead on the texture of the rock. I painted in a dull rust orange and then scrubbed the rocks with nearly dry brown paint to mimic the pitted surface and the discoloration. The increased detail looked strange next to the simplistic shapes and I started to add more and more detail; clouds, trees, complicated shading. It became no longer a boiling-down of a scene to its basic elements but an attempt at photo-realistically recreating the landscape such that someone would get no more out of the painting than they would from any photograph.

So I began again, this time focusing on the contrast between light and dark in the scenes; the huge shadows cast by these monoliths over their valleys. I realized that seeing a stone arch casting a shadow on the canyon wall behind it was a very strong suggestion of the size and arrangement of the components of a scene; the way the shadow was distorted by the angle of the wall, the way it bent and kinked because of cracks in the cliff face. In this way I eventually simplified the paintings down to just three colors: sky, stone and shadow.

Going back to that aerial photo of waterpocket fold, I can see that it isn’t just shadow that reveals the buckling of the land there but also color. The deep red of the flat irons is what makes them stand out and what makes the pattern of their saw-toothed range obvious. I need to incorporate color as a way of organizing the pieces of a scene. That is what I’m going to work towards as I go forward.

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