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"Immersions" is an artful commentary on the imagination and ecology of the sea.

By Margaret Regan

JUNE 1, 1998:  DOWN AT ROCKY Point, the tide pools glow silver in the beam of a flashlight. Everything is wet and shiny: the water puddled in the hollows of the porous rocks, the dark sand, the tiny shapes of the sea creatures clinging to every surface. And everywhere you step, the water comes seeping out of the saturated beach, making new patterns around your foot. It's not much of a stretch to think of converting these visual delicacies into art, and sure enough the wiggly outlines of the anemone, the free-form lines of the seaweed and the curves of the rock turn up time and again in the paintings of Tucsonan David Andres.

Andres' lovely acrylic paintings inspired by the life forms at the edge of the sea and down in the deep are in a big new show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Immersions actually is a dialogue between Andres and Tucson photographer Ann Simmons-Myers. Both of them work the deliciously organic shapes of the sea, the regular patterns of sand, the irregular outlines of the strange creatures, the luminous quality of water. The show has been hung to take advantage of the compositional correspondences between the two. The twin pulsating shapes of Simmons-Myers' "Shrouded: Sandsnail" and Andres' "Anemone," for instance, are a joy to see.

But there are marked differences. Andres conjures up the world under the sea in his imagination; interestingly, his visions of the deep translate into paintings that stay deliberately flat and on the surface. Simmons-Myers photographs water from above, allowing depth and perspective into her works. And where Andres splashes his abstracted sea shapes with colors as luminous as those glowing inside a jellyfish--and sprinkles them with the silvery glitter of a Rocky Point night--Simmons-Myers stays with stark black and white.

The work she's exhibiting in this show searches out water wherever she can find it in the Southwest. It's at Puerto Peñasco, to be sure, where she shoots shrouded human figures curled up like mollusks dug in near the foam or like snails burrowed into a sand pit. But unlike Andres, Simmons-Myers, the head of the photography department at Pima College, goes deep inland, too, to find her watery images: to the big, fake lake in the desert, Lake Powell; to muddy desert rivers; and natural springs such as Agua Caliente park in Tucson.

Exhibition notes explain that Andres and Simmons-Myers have been friends for 20 years, and have often vacationed along the waters of Mexico with their families. Andres has delved into sea themes for ages, sometimes exhibiting large paintings around town, other times showing jewel-like monoprints. Simmons-Myers doesn't limit herself to water--her last Dinnerware show was a series of portraits of a woman near death--but she photographs it often enough that she and Andres decided to pair their water work for the Immersions show. (The exhibition is the latest in a long line of UAMA shows honoring UA arts grads: Andres got his master's in 1979, and Simmons-Myers hers in 1981.)

All 35 pictures that Simmons-Myers contributed are from her continuing Shrouded series. Her working method for this variation on the age-old figure-in-the-landscape genre is unusual. She wraps a naked human in cloth and then poses the draped model somewhere in the outdoors. In an earlier show, also at Dinnerware, the humans were all bound females and there were undertones not only of censorship but of violence and torture.

This Shrouded suite is much more playful. In "Shrouded: Sea Lions," a pair of young models cavort on the sand, wrapped in glittery dark cloth, aping the movements of the sea mammals. "Shrouded: Mollusk" clothes another crouched figure on the beach in a wonderfully patterned cloth (the photographer apparently owns dozens); it's been gathered around the model's feet to look like fins. "Shrouded: Lake Powell" offers a frankly fake pair of sea lions, draped humans, sunning themselves on the fake beach of the fake lake. Other wrapped models become cocoons and snakes and even a grazing bison.

Humorous as it can be, this work of beautiful lights and darks has a serious side. Sometimes there's a suggestion of abandonment, even death. In "Shrouded: Agua Caliente," the wrapped figure suggests a corpse tossed into a hidden mud flat. And there are environmental undertones to the work of both the painter and the photographer, quite apart from both desert artists' obvious inclusion of water in every work.

Andres' paintings honor nature through a purely sensual homage to the sea, devoid of any human despoiling. Simmons-Myers makes a more pointed commentary about our relationship to the earth. Her figures are an intrinsic part of the landscape, but they never dominate it. Wrapped in her patterned cloths, the people take on the protective coloration of nature. They blend in with the seaside rocks, with the reeds along a river, the bark of a tree, becoming just another element in an ecology with multiple players.

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