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Tucson Weekly Encroachment Art

A New Exhibit At Central Arts Commemorates Humankind's Destruction Of The Earth.

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  IN PENNSYLVANIA'S GREEN rolling hills, they're leveling the forest. Along the Florida coast, they're digging up sea turtle habitat. Right here in Arizona, of course, they're blading the desert, scraping bare a saguaro and ironwood ecosystem that's unique on the globe.

Who? The bulldozers, of course. Rolling across America's pristine places at an unprecedented pace, the bulldozers of the 1990s are despoiling habitat and promoting sprawl wherever they go. The show now on at Central Arts Collective, Encroachment: Nowhere to Hide, makes the important point that pitched development battles are hardly confined to our beloved Sonoran Desert. An invitational show juried by UA art prof Moira Marti Geoffrion and three others, it exhibits work by artists from every corner of the land, and the picture isn't pretty. Artists all over, in Alaska, in Idaho, in California, are torn between lamentation and rage.

Richard Armstrong's photographs chronicle the loss of forest and farmland in the Northeast. "Condos and Water Tower, New Hope, Pa." was taken in Pennsylvania's fabled Bucks County, near where I grew up, a place of old stone houses and fields so green they're blue. The picture's long, narrow shape mimics that lovely undulating landscape, but rising out of its autumnal mists are hulking apartment blocks, ungainly and glaring on the horizon. The old houses were built with stones dug up from the fields, and their architecture celebrates their relationship with the land. Not so these new eyesores: They might as well have been dropped from the moon for all the thought that's gone into their context.

Florida artist Kathleen Williams concentrates on the pitiable condition of the animals that once roamed her state's beaches and woods. Florida's strange menagerie of native beasts, alligators and bears and panthers and turtles, have long since mostly given way to Disney detritus and retirement rot. In "Nowhere to Run," a mixed-media photograph, a hapless Florida panther is superimposed on a busy city intersection. Less heavyhanded, and wittier, is her "No Vacancy." All around the perimeter is a collage of Florida vernacular architecture, old-time seaside motels and the like, and they're cramping the sea turtle at the center. It's at once a commentary on environmental degradation and the coming loss of regional variation in architecture.

Which brings us to poor Arizona. Charles Hedgcock of Tucson has made a tongue-in-cheek sculptural homage to the instrument of our destruction in "Caged Fetish." A bulldozer of brick-red clay, it's housed inside saguaro ribs and decorated with that yellow tape that goes around construction sites. Archaeologists of the future, Hedgcock seems to be saying, may puzzle over the free rein given to the bulldozer. Like a sacred untouchable, the bulldozer has been allowed to destroy the very places that give us life.

Tucsonan Sharyl Wagner had made a deft planner's drawing, the kind that helps direct the bulldozer to its destructive work. A cyanotype blueprint of a lush desert slope, it's scarred by an overlay of drawings of the regimented houses and palm trees that will soon supplant the wilderness. Wagner's work pointedly critiques not only the appalling design of our new subdivisions, all pink and treeless; her mimicry of architectural drawing chides the professionals who turn their training into such garbage.

The results of these architectural efforts are seen from the air in the work of Adriel Heisey, the aerial photographer who's also exhibiting a whole suite of Sonoran Desert photos out at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. "Homes Surrounding Butte, West of Saguaro National Park West" is a gorgeous color photo of the desert in late afternoon, when the butte casts a long shadow onto the valley. But all around this majestic geological formation white houses are littered like so much trash. As Heisey writes in a mournful artist's statement, "The desert offers little camouflage from the air. Intrusions read loud and clear, and remain for years."

Photographer Kent Kochenderfer of Tucson turned his attention to a specific local calamity. "Burned Rillito Cottonwoods" commemorates a thick stand of cottonwoods that once were, along the river that once was. Stressed by the encroachment of the city and long since deprived of their once marshy riverbanks, these trees burned so forcefully this summer that a heavy cloud of smoke choked the city for a day and a night. This beautiful work is a memento mori, colored in elegiac golds, browns and grays, but it's also a sad warning of more losses sure to come.


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