Art in the Canyons 

Idaho State exhibit explores the outdoors

Years ago, there was an innovative San Francisco company called the Snake Theatre that created "environmental drama events," staging shows in parks, gas stations and once in a swimming pool (complete with a fake shark). The idea was to get the audience more physically involved and incorporate them into the action. Once passive spectators, they followed actors through the woods or observed plays in outdoor settings. It was a shared artistic experience.

Idaho State instructor Robert Granger does something similar with his intense art workshop. In his workshops, however, it's the artist who physically experiences the environment rather than the audience. That physical experience is then channeled into artistic expression. The original announcement for the workshop read as follows:

"The Arches/Canyonlands Workshop will take place during the first six-week summer session, 2006. Participants will spend seven days and nights working, talking, camping and hiking amidst the unique landscape of the Moab, Utah area from May 15-22."

When the students returned from the desert landscape, they discussed and developed art based on their contact with nature. According to Granger, the workshop is "particularly dedicated to drawing and the landscape but will also address issues relating to writing and photography." A number of creative-writing workshops have also taken this more visceral approach. In his playwriting workshop, Sam Shepard asked his writers to perform as actors and get a physical feel for the stage. What Granger asks of his students isn't all that different.

"Perhaps the central objective of the workshop is to remove students from the conventional, institutional setting in which they most often work, and to introduce them to another landscape, where they might reflect, converse, execute and evaluate their artwork according to fresh criteria--in a new light," he says. "Relationships among students (as well as with faculty and guests) are affected by place and conditions. And, perhaps most importantly, the students [are] able to confront themselves, their work, amidst the subject matter, rather than at a comfortable, aesthetic distance. I provide each student with a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, which functions as the text for the course."

The book is an interesting choice. Edward Abbey was an environmental iconoclast and activist, perhaps best known for The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel about activists planning to blow up a dam. Abbey lived in Moab and is buried in an unmarked desert grave. Granger's workshop raises some interesting questions about art and art history. Photography and painting have had an uneasy relationship since photography was invented, but art and literature suffered a major break with the revolution of modern art culminating in Andy Warhol's "Pop" visions. Granger's fresh approach might encourage rather than discourage literary concepts in visual art.

The exhibit from Granger's workshop, "Out of the Canyons IV," opened on October 13 at Idaho State's John B. Davis Gallery. It included work by students, faculty and guests. Featured student artists were Scott Chastain, Danielle Dutson, Michael Fryer, Helen Livingston, Jennie McCall, Nikki Mull, Tal Sampson and Stephanie Slavin. In addition to work by Granger, guests included Marjorie Mickelson, photographer David Nelson and Lynn A. Gray, a visiting artist and guest instructor from the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota.

There's a big question: Did the group experience at Devil's Garden Campground in Arches National Park produce arresting art? For this critic, the exhibit produced mixed impressions.

The Davis Gallery is small but intimate. On first entering the room, spectators see Granger's striking photos of the actual canyon site. There is also Mickelson's powerful photo of Abyss Canyon, which is well named. A shot of a man dwarfed by the huge layered canyon wall conveys what the faculty and students saw in Utah. It is risky to combine paintings and drawing with actual photos of nature, but Ansel Adams showed the nature photo could work as art. These photos prepare the viewer to see what the artists did in translating the canyon into "canyonlands" art.

Gray paintings follow, including one of a canyon arch that is neither abstract nor realistic, but somewhere in between. A recurring image is the sky seen through a circle of rock overhead. Titles like In the Time of Washes are provocative. Gray has another somewhat conventional painting of a huge square containing smaller squares and on which there is a green word on a blue background: "guerra," "tiempo," "paz" and "total." Next to the painting is a bundle of sticks tipped with color. Do the words suggest a meaning of war and peace in nature?

Digital photos by Nelson include a lone man walking along a cliff. The figure is exposed and vulnerable against a beautiful but dangerous landscape. There is also a snapshot of student artist Dutson lying in a hammock. Dutson's art work immediately challenges the spectator. Evol is an abstract using oil, acrylic and charcoal. If only briefly, it brings the dark patterns of Jackson Pollock to mind. Two other paintings, Nightwatch and Gray Night, suggest a surreal landscape of sky, peaks and ridges. The images are not realistic, yet remain somehow immediate. In one, we see the landscape as though in a silver dream.

To the left is Mickelson's oil painting of a canyon with a circle exposing the sky. Then there are Livingston's colorful pastel portraits of desert landscapes with brightly shaded rock patterns. Her work was used to advertise the show, an excellent choice with her purple and yellow hues against a black sky. Past Livingston's work is Slavin's three-dimensional work, Beyond the Rectangle, trees and wavy lines in acrylic on wood blocks upon wood blocks. Next are two large paintings by Sampson that capture birds flying across bright skies. One painting, appropriately titled Raven's Nest, features what may be a rising or setting sun. Another in oil is titled The Red Moon (though the moon is white). The cliffs blend shades of white, red and blue.

Fryer displays four photos of trees and flowers, the most notable a dark tree that conjures a sense of mystery. A photo, entitled Twilight At Camp, gives the spectator another snapshot of the actual camp area. Toward the end of the exhibit is another acrylic painting by Dutson: a splash of red and blue lines suggesting a desert. The painting includes Spanish words left untranslated. One word, "cadmio," refers to a metal that is evidently "dark with blue." On a stand near the door is McCall's collection of rock and wood, presumably from the canyon. This example of collected material to create art seems almost like an afterthought, but provides a balance to the paintings and photos.

Near the exit hangs a charcoal drawing by Chastain with the intriguing title, Something I Saw That Wasn't There. Certainly, the greatest art appeals to the imagination and creates things that "aren't there." This drawing captures another viewpoint of a rugged and beautiful locale and invites the viewer to fill in "what isn't there." It illustrates a nice juxtaposition and impressionistic contrast to the sharply focused photos by Mickelson and Granger. Hanging on a pillar is Mull's orange fabric piece, Homemade Arch, a unique perspective on the canyon workshop experience.

Overall, this exhibit demonstrates the inspiration and challenge of confronting nature and rendering it as art. Can art ever compete with nature? Perhaps not, but art can interpret the connection between humankind and nature's beauty. Granger's workshop may encourage a fresh direction in artistic expression as these student artists mature. Granger's students certainly demonstrate promising talent, and I hope there is an "Out of the Canyons V" in the near future.

The "Out of the Canyonlands IV" exhibit is now over, but Granger is planning an "Out of the Canyonlands V" exhibit for 2007.

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