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Sense of Place, Superbly

A new book collecting the region's contemporary art features several Tucsonans

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Jeff Smith likes the borderlands best at night.

"When people think of the desert, they think about the brightness," he writes. "When I think of desert, I think about the deep nights I have spent there, looking for light."

Smith is a photographer who chases lightning, searching for the jagged bolts that pierce the monsoon clouds or cast reflections in the wet streets. He shoots their blazes of white light bouncing off mountains and utility poles, capturing their brilliance and danger in pungently colored inkjet prints.

A Tucsonan who shows at Etherton Gallery, Smith is one of 107 artists whose work made it into a nationally published book, "Contemporary Art of the Southwest." It reproduces five of his photographs, including "Red Rock Power Station Arizona," an electric vision of white-hot lightning against purple.

Smith was selected in part because his work is so deeply rooted in the local landscape—and skies.

Julie Sasse, chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Tucson Museum of Art, contributed an essay to the book extolling Southwest artists' "passion for sense of place." That sense of place is keenly felt throughout the Southwest, she writes, and the book covers artists from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, nearly all of them influenced by the region's "clear skies and stark landscapes."

The book's title is a bit of a misnomer: The artists included are both cutting-edge contemporary innovators and traditional painters of romanticized landscapes. The nine Tucson artists who made it into the mix fit into both categories. A tenth, honorary Tucsonan Mayme Kratz, a Phoenix artist who frequently shows in Tucson, is one of the bone-fide abstractionists.

Kratz's work honors the landscape in a way decidedly different from Smith's. Part painter, part sculptor, Kratz gathers grass and seeds and bones from the desert, and embeds them in resin, creating three-dimensional wall works of serene beauty. In "Secret Galaxy," blades of yellow grass explode in a starburst across rich red-brown resin.

Abstract and contemporary they may be, Kratz's pieces nevertheless echo the traditions of Native American artists. These artists honor the land by using its fruits in their arts, Sasse notes; the Tohono O'odham, just for instance, craft baskets of bear grass and yucca plucked from the earth.

Several other Tucson artists included take inspiration from cultural traditions. Catherine Eyde paints deliberately naïve images of figures and animals and flowers floating in space. Painted in brightly colored acrylics on wood, these folkloric works borrow from a heady mix of the Arab and Spanish motifs that shaped colonial Southwest architecture. In "Seeds," a woman drifts past a white building whose domes and arches borrow from both.

Daniel Martin Diaz, a homegrown Tucson artist now decamped to Los Angeles, plays with Mexican religious imagery, converting the bloody religious icons of his childhood into haunting explorations of the psyche. In monotone paintings like "Captured Soul," skulls and veins and tree branches curl into creepy harbingers of death.

Playful Elizabeth Frank goes both ways. She gathers her materials from the land and shapes them into witty sculptures that look deceptively like folk art. She collects aspen branches in the mountains and carves them into folkloric people and animals. With the addition of contemporary found objects, they become sly looks at the "intricate relationship between man and nature," as she writes in the book.

And they express her concern for the environment. She thrusts light bulbs into the heads of two carved "Skatebirds," and in "Year of the Ox" she has two yoked oxen hauling away a tree that's been uprooted from the earth.

Contemporary Art of the Southwest

E. Ashley Rooney with Julie Sasse

Schiffer Publishing

240 pages, $45

"Red Rock Power Station, Arizona," Jeff Smith, archival inkjet print, 2003. © Jeff Smith. courtesy etherton gallery

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