I’ve been reading about the Great Basin in a couple of books by William L. Fox. One is Aereality, which compares the Nevada desert to urban space around New York City and to the Australian outback by flying over them; the other is The Void, the Grid, and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin. Fox is interested in many different attributes of these areas: art, particularly land art in Nevada and rock art in various deserts, geography, especially desert geography, cartography and mapping, history, geology, and human perception.
I like Aereality, but I found The Void, the Grid, and the Sign particularly fascinating. In it, he explores the kind of territory in Nevada that we just spent six weeks in. His insights really help me understand something of what I was facing in trying to paint. The first thing I was facing was unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar to the point of incomprehensible.
Here’s how Fox puts it on his blog:
“The Great Basin, my home desert, encourages … recursive thoughts. Covering almost all of Nevada and western Utah, it is a deeply repetitive landscape of arid basins and high ranges that betrays the cycles of earth, fire, and water underlying it. The entire region continues to swell, uplifted from underneath and pushing apart Reno and Salt Lake City at opposite ends of the Basin. Nevada alone carries three hundred and sixteen mountain ranges, some of them more than thirteen thousand feet in elevation, all separated from each other by valleys that can run a hundred miles long by twenty wide. The basins and ranges tend roughly north by south, massive wrinkles reflecting how the North American plate overrides the Pacific one. The bones of the land are naked here, and so is the syntax of the poetry.
Fox continues: “No water runs out of the Great Basin, all of it falling inward either to sink beneath the ground or to evaporate. Forming its western rim is the two-mile-high Sierra Nevada, an escarpment of granite that casts a deep rain shadow over almost the entire Basin. This is the largest, highest, and coldest desert in the contiguous United States. Because the air is so devoid of humidity there is little blurring of ridges thirty and forty miles away, confounding our sense of distance. Because the spectrum of color in the vegetation is so narrow, our expectations of atmospheric perspective, of a shift in color from a warm foreground to cool background, are distorted likewise.
“The ground at our feet and the distant mountains are all that we see. Nowhere is there a familiar tree or building against which we can measure ourselves. The cognitive dissonance is severe. We don’t know where we are. Traditional wisdom about being lost in the wilderness—follow water downstream until you reach civilization—does not often work here. Follow convention and you are likely to end up stranded in the middle of an alkali flat.
“The only way to understand the enormous space of the Great Basin is to invest time in your experience of it. Slowly your eyes will adjust to the extended reach of vision, and your ears become accustomed to hearing only the wind and your heartbeat. You will learn to read your way around, cutting across the grain of the land instead of following it in order to find your bearings.”
The first painting I did of the “void,” the Amargosa Plain in front of the Red Barn studio, was lovely but false. Not deliberately false, but perceived falsely. I couldn’t see the void except in the context of mountains:
The Amargosa Plain, 12 x 16, oil on board
And yes, this is the same painting that Jer chose as one of his favorites. As a painting, it’s not bad. But as for capturing the territory, well, it took me a bit longer to get closer to doing so.
I found myself painting toward the mountains that line the Amargosa Plain, just to provide something familiar to rest my brush against.
Funeral Mountains, Early Morning, 18 x 24, oil on board
The Funeral Mountains lie to the west of the Amargosa Plain and the Red Barn. This painting captures a bit more of the sense of the lack of a middle ground, which is one of the characteristics of the desert. The clarity of the air and the monotone of the color (not really a monotone, but with far fewer gradations to make the changes evident) are what make distances so deceiving in the desert.
Perhaps the best attempt to capture the Plain was one of the last paintings I did:
The Amargosa Playa, 18 x 24, oil on board
Here the middle ground is nothing but haze, moving indefinitely into the distance, where some mountains propose a bit of a stop. The bit of color in the foreground is an old ice house, a remnant of Bullfrog, a town which was mostly moved to Rhyolite, up the road a piece.
Painting a void is much like John Cage’s saying, “I have nothing to say. And I’m saying it.” The process changes our ways of seeing, destroys our preconceived notions of perception, and makes me paint as wacky as the urban scene does. I am in the process of thinking about beginning to think about reworking a large canvas that I brought home with me that plays with perspective in the way Fox has found was played with some 6000 –8000 years ago in the deserts of Turkey. That canvas needs work, and I need to continue to work on concepts and perceptions, so I’m not showing it here. But this is the kind of thing I’m thinking about these days.
By the way, the Amargosa “Playa” isn’t really a playa at all, as my fact-checker Jer pointed out to me. The Amargosa River, which lies completely under the surface of the plain in front of the Red Barn in Nevada, makes its slow and mysterious underground way down a slight decline to the south (surfacing a couple of times if there’s rain) to Tecopa, California, where it gradually turns 180 degrees and sinks into Badwater Basin, about 280 feet below sea level, the nadir of Death Valley. A playa would capture all the water that ran into it, giving it no outlet. The Amargosa has an outlet, albeit one that leads it further into oblivion. –June