Eyes Open on Quietness

Painters of the Desert: The Arid West. At the Wildling Art Museum. Shows through March 25.

Reviewed by Alissa J. Anderson

Conrad_Buff_Pink_Mountains_Zion.jpgPainters of the Desert: The Arid West, now on exhibit at the Wildling Art Museum, documents the abundant beauty that, for certain artists, exists in the quiet of the desert. “To some, the desert brings to mind a vast, hot, and inhospitable area of drifting sands,” said curator Marlene R. Miller, but for Conrad Buff, Maynard Dixon, Clyde Forsythe, Fernand Lungren, and James Swinnerton, the desert inspired artistic enlightenment and “all of them found their purpose, their inspiration, and their happiness in this vast and arid, and sometimes hostile and bewildering place.”

The Wildling Art Museum’s mission is to explore America’s wilderness through art. This exhibit focuses on the many artists who found their muse in the North American Desert. Just as the Hudson River School discovered spirituality in the Hudson River Valley and the California impressionist painters were inspired by the landscapes of the Pacific Coast, some artists found beauty in the desert. Georgia O’Keeffe’s most important work came only after she abandoned New York for New Mexico — never to return from the desert.

Painters of the Desert encompasses scenes from the four great North American deserts, including the Great Basin, Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan. Using a variety of techniques and styles, these painters explore the unseen virtues of the desert. Conrad Buff’s highly modernist painting “Pink Mountain, Zion” transforms desert buttes into geometrical, cubist forms. With its bold color and loose, sweeping brushstrokes, “Pink Mountain” depicts the desert in a way not typically seen. Clyde Forsythe’s “Enchanted Mesa, NM” captures the minimalist shapes and earthen tones of parched land, cliff, and sky. James Swinnerton’s nearly photo-realistic “Little Colorado River near Cameron, Arizona” offers a juxtaposition that suggests the harsh irony of the desert, showing a river seemingly swallowed by an arid, rocky landscape.

Rarely do we see people in these scenes. When we do, they are overshadowed by nature, as in Maynard Dixon’s “Storm on the Tehachapi,” in which men and cattle are dwarfed by ominous thunderclouds and rolling hills. This small but resonant exhibition captures the expansive, alluring, and often mysterious qualities of a seemingly dry wasteland. These painters show the magnificence of monumental desert bluffs, quintessential desert skies, dramatic shadows cast upon an endless landscape, and the decorative radiance of simple sand and brush. By reflecting on the humbling power of nature over humans, these works embody a core value of romantic art — the natural sublime.

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