A week from today, on Wednesday, June 12, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts will unveil its next visual arts exhibition, “Mirage: Energy and Water in the Great Basin.”
The Great Basin is a massive geological area encompassing much of the western United States. Its edges skirt through California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, and blankets nearly all of the state of Nevada.
Rivers crisscross throughout the region, but unlike in most areas of the world, these waterways drain inland, rather than out into the ocean.
This closed watershed system produces a variety of ecosystems, some in isolated pockets amid the great expanse of desert that covers most of the region.
With its unique landscape and categorically contradictory environs yielding enticing juxtapositions, the Great Basin has captured the eyes and imaginations of many a skilled artist over the years.
The Center’s new exhibition brings together eight such creative minds and hopes to jumpstart critical conversations on landscape art, energy, power, ecological concerns and sustainability.
“There’s something magical about the Great Basin,” said Courtney Gilbert, The Center’s curator of visual arts. “It’s a place of shimmering landscapes where it’s often difficult to be sure that what you think you see is real. Its vastness offers a kind of secrecy and its open spaces offer up possibilities and inspire experimentation.”
These eight artists blend different artistic modes and methods in their individual pursuits to capture the brilliance and character of the Great Basin.
“Each of the artists in the exhibition illuminates the magic of the Great Basin in different ways,” Gilbert said. “Together, they reveal the Great Basin as a place of cyclical energy, creative activity and personal reinvention.”
Photographer Laura McPhee has produced a project called “Desert Chronicle.” Drawing upon the legacy of her great-grandmother, a teacher who bounced around Nevada’s mining towns, McPhee’s work considers the Great Basin in both its geological context and on a personal, human scale.
She analyzes humanity’s complicated and not always harmonious relationship to the land and its yields with photographs of ghost towns, abandoned and still-operational mines, wind farms and more.
Frances Ashforth will contribute newly created paintings and prints centering on the basin’s unique watershed, and analyzing humanity’s relationship with water. Ashforth produced the monotypes on display at two distinctly different locations in the Great Basin: the Summer Lake area of Oregon and the Antelope Island area in Utah.
Some vast areas of the exhibition space will host large-scale works by Andrea Zittel, one of the founders of the High Desert Test Sites near California’s Joshua Tree National Park. These test sites operate as oases for artists to experiment with their craft in one of the most scenic locations in the American West.
Zittel will contribute a large painting produced in a test site and a “Wall Sprawl” work. This consists of wallpaper made from aerial photographs of industrialized, militarized and otherwise built-up sections of the Great Basin.
Emmet Gowin’s photography makes use of a different kind of test site: the Nevada nuclear test site, where more than 900 atomic tests were conducted over the course of nearly 50 years.
Gowin’s photographs capture sobering images of the effects of repeated atomic blasts on a landscape. Other photographs contributed to the exhibition touch upon the permanent ramifications of mining. Together, Gowin’s portfolio points to the scars humanity leaves across the landscape.
Though much of the exhibition consists of new or recent artwork, large-form prints by artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson offer a glimpse back a few decades. Their works, “Sun Tunnels” and “Spiral Jetty,” respectively, were created in the basin in the 1970s.
Their images, when displayed alongside contemporary creations, expose the ways in which the landscape has changed in this short time, and how it has remained the same in some regards.
Artist Fazal Sheikh created his photography project “Exposed” in collaboration with author Terry Tempest Williams, who will visit Sun Valley this summer as The Community Library’s third annual Hemingway Distinguished Lecturer.
“Exposed” delves into the recent legislation to reduce two of Utah’s most scenic national monuments. One of those, the Grand Staircase-Escalante, sits on the edge of the Great Basin. The other is the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The boundary reductions could enable environmentally irreparable resource extraction. The Center will display a collection of photographs Sheikh made for “Exposed.”
Rounding out “Mirage” is a host of new paintings by Cedra Wood, specifically commissioned by The Center for this exhibition. Wood has explored ideas of survival and coexistence in a series of stylistically realistic paintings that frequently incorporate fantastical imagery.
The exhibition officially opens on Wednesday, June 12, but The Center will hold a free opening celebration the following evening, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 13.
At 6 p.m. that same night, Artistic Director Kristin Poole will moderate a free panel discussion featuring artist Frances Ashforth, Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, and Peter Hassrick, director of the Buffalo Bill Center for the West and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
This discussion will illuminate the objective of the exhibition and Ashforth’s creative process, as well as analyzing the continued relevance of landscape painting in the post-postmodern era.
For more information about the opening day events, the exhibition or the artists, visit sunvalleycenter.org.