As Steve noted not long ago, perception — how, as well as what, we see and record — is prime territory for this group. Some weeks ago I wrote about painting in the desert, the Great Basin to be more precise, and, even more specifically,  the Amargosa Plain just outside of Death Valley.

After having spent 6 weeks in the desert, perceiving and painting, mostly plein air, I am now back in Portland reading about desert perception in William L. Fox’s The Void, the Grid, and the Sign.

Fox has spent most of his life in and around a variety of deserts and back-of-nowhere lands, but in The Void he’s primarily concerned with the Great Basin, that large space between the Rockies and the Sierras, where water flows in, but never out, where there is no river coursing to the sea.  He says that outside of Afghanistan, this area contains the most mountain ranges (316) in the world, but there are also 90 basins, places where what little water exists is captured between ranges and sinks or evaporates. The best known of these basins is perhaps Death Valley, although that lies outside Fox’s attention. The place I was painting, the Amargosa Plain, is also just outside his wide-ranging travels. However, much of what he says is apropos of the Amargosa and Death Valley.

Death Valley at the Beatty Cut-off, March, 2009

Fox’s interest is in the intersection of geography (and some geology), cartography, personal experience, human perception (of land voids such as the basin and range) and art. He’s a poet, and the first third of The Void, the Grid, and the Sign revolves around Michael Heizer’s City, the enormous earthwork begun in about 1970 and premised to be finished by about 2010.

Fox’s description, found on his website, of the basin and range area is better than any I could create: “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.

“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.”

Prior to going to Nevada, I had a vague notion of the basin and range country from having traversed it on route 50, perhaps 40 years before, being astonished at its desolation and at the highway, cutting across basin after basin, rising slowly to the top of inclines, where it would slop wildly down steep backsides, to cross the next basin.

This is a view of a small California basin, the Panamint. The photo was taken from a small unnamed range that we had been traversing in the car; it looks back toward the big Panamint Range (the west wall of Death Valley), which is beyond the top of the photo. The photo has been enhanced a bit to show the road we had just traveled, moving from right center, reappearing to go off center left after crossing the saline flats. The photo may give some indication of the kind of territory that Fox describes and that I tried to paint.

Fox is interested in cartography, how people perceive and map land, and more particularly, how they map apparent voids. Americans, starting with Jefferson and taking cues from much earlier civilizations, map in grids, so John Fremont mapped the Great Basin, disregarding its natural formations and placing it with the rest of the grid that the US was forming. (Other cultures, such as the Australian Aborigines, map in very different ways, through stories and spiritual places, and even city slickers in 21st century America will map the distance from here to the nearest Peets Coffee Shop by time ( 25 minutes) rather than gridded space (15 blocks directly north),

Grids can be comforting, but strangely at odds with what one attempts to paint in the desert. Painting without much middle ground, and without much to focus on, can have strange effects on the painter’s psyche.

This is one view of the ghost town, Rhyolite, from a point south of the Red Barn, where I had my studio for those six weeks. The dots here and there in the center of the photo below the hills are what remains of the town. In its heyday, it had gridded streets, the tracks of which still can be found, as well as three railroad lines, and the usual array of post office, banks, a two-story school, saloons, and whorehouses, all placed on a grid. Just southwest of the ghost town is the sculpture area known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum, about which I wrote earlier. And southeast of Rhyolite is Ladd Mountain, now sculpted on its southern flank by a vat leach mine.

When I painted this scene (plein air) the first time, I was flummoxed by its randomness. Even when looking with my own eyes rather than through the flattening and distortion caused by the camera, the scene had no focus, no way to get hold of it. Here’s one discarded attempt at a plein air work of the subject:

It tooka number of weeks before I found the only spot around where the scene could make sense:

Rhyolite and Sculptures Panorama, 18 x 36″, oil on board

Only on a curve in the paved road going to the ghost town (marked by a big asphalt patch on the right side), can you see that the mountains, Ladd on the right, Busch Peak behind, and Sutherland (and Bonanza Hill) to the left formed a 3-sided wall. The town sat within these hills and looked out over the Amargosa Plain (alternatively called the Amargosa Desert), where that “wretched trickle” known as the Amargosa River sinks. [Digression alert: the Amargosa Plain is not legitimately a “playa”, because its water does not totally sink in its depression. A slight decline leads the existing water  down to the end of the Funeral Mountains where it finds further slight declines around the end of the mountain and into a further declination that leads it to below sea level to Death Valley].

One of my earlierst paintings of the Amargosa Plain didn’t capture the void. It’s not a bad painting, but it isn’t the desert that I was confronted with, even though I was painting plein air. My brain simply couldn’t see the void in front of me:

Amargosa Playa 1, 12 x 16″ , oil on board

I painted that desert straight on at least 3 times and obliquely, a large number of other times. The oblique approach was definitely easier, because the mountains gave a place to go with the brush:

Funeral Mountains, Early Morning, 18 x 24″, oil on board

The middle ground is still lacking, so the mountains, which are perhaps 15 miles away to the west, look much closer, but at least they are there; and there’s a road, a sign, that leads one to know what is being depicted.

Perhaps the most successful painting of the void I’ve managed thus far was very late in my stay in Nevada. It is directly down the Amargosa Plain (desert/playa) in front of the Red Barn. It was painted in late afternoon, when the slight haze that the unseen river causes to rise over the ground surfaces gets played with by the sunlight:

The Amargosa Playa 3, 18 x 34, oil on board

The Plain isn’t fully empty at its southern end. A “pinch” allows the Amargosa to work its way between two mountain ranges before it turns west.  So in some lights (like this one at 3 PM in mid-March) there is some edge to the void of the desert.

I have a canvas painting that presents the perspective in a  different way;  In Aereality Fox describes a variation of this form from an earlier painting The painting was found  on an excavated wall at Catalhoyuk, Anatolia (Turkey): “This ‘volcano painting’ a panoramic view done around 6200 BC, shows the town in planimetric (a plan view, as if seen from straight above) and the then active Hasan Dag volcano, its twin summits sixty miles away reaching 10,672 feet, in elevation (in profile, as if seen from a horizontal view)…. there are no hills nearby Catalhoyuk, and athough the residents apparently climbed up the volcano to obtain obsidian, the town was effectively invisible from that distance… why make this composite image in plan and profile…. this is more than a map, but a highly mediated and thus expressive aerial view of the world.”

It is this “highly mediated and … expressive view” of the Amargosa plain, with a plan (aerial view) as well as a horizontal one from the Red Barn Studio,  which I am still reworking. In other paintings, I managed to capture the grids with telephone poles and desert tracks, and even the signs, with speed limits on metallic boards and billboards. The rocks of the mountains have bold layers of folds and geologic structures and chemicals that made them explicable in paint. But the void is harder. And (therefore?) somewhat more interesting. And I swear, I read Fox’s description of the somewhat older art work after I painted the unfinished but blocked out plab/horizon version I’m now working on. I’m hoping to somehow do other versions of that Amargosa void, working the question of perspectives.

I would also say that Fox himself finds it difficult to discuss the void — mostly he discusses its edges, either by driving, hiking, climbing, or flying above them. Rocks and mountains make stops and points of reference; only artists working on the ocean, or someone like Michael Heizer, can make the void fully expressive.

Incidentally, Fox’s discussion of Heizer’s City, in The Void, the Grid and the Sign, is the best I’ve seen anywhere about this reclusive artist’s work. I’m hoping that when City opens (Dia: Beacon says 2010; right now it’s totally closed to the public) that I can spend some time there. Heizer seems particularly aware of the void he faces; he says City is not “in a place; it is place.” From Fox’s description, I can believe it.