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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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