By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Another reason saguaros never caught fire as a subject in art is that, Noble Sentinel of the Desert at Sunset notwithstanding, there is something pretty funny about them. After all, Frank Redding published an entire book titled Silly Saguaros, giving captions to photographs of particularly ludicrous examples of the species Carnegiea gigantea. You look at them, you laugh. What other plant can you say this about?
@body:Warren Anderson used to give his beginning students a test. He taught art at the University of Arizona for 30 years. He'd ask each crop of incoming students to draw a saguaro. Almost every one of them turned in the same thing: a short and plump cactus with two arms, both upraised. Anderson came to call this icon the "bandit victim," because it looks like its arms have been flung up suddenly, in response to a gun held at its back. "It's a conceptual average," says Anderson, who used this little Saguaro Aptitude Test to teach students the importance of seeing. "It's based on what you usually see when you're not looking at saguaros themselves, but at facsimiles and symbols of them. Look at the ads in the Yellow Pages and neon signs."
Anderson collects examples of bandit victims. Former students send him photographs from around the world. There is a saguaro cactus with two arms upraised on a sign somewhere, he says, in New Zealand. Anderson paid homage to the bandit victim in one of his own paintings, part of a series of works called "Roadside America," in which he depicted old gas pumps and whatnot. The bandit-victim saguaro appears on a motel sign in El Cajon, California. Anderson copied the sign with loving care.
Where or when the bandit victim was born is an historical mystery, awaiting some ambitious doctoral candidate in American Studies. It does seem to have reached its apotheosis in the roadside America of the 1950s that Anderson painted, and from there it seems to have spread around the world, like a flu, passed from motel sign to drive-in movie to Mexican restaurant. The bandit victim is the cactus of neon lights sold on street corners, of billboards, of business cards, of cartoons, of automatic teller machines and of beer commercials on television. It is even the cactus on the license plate of the state of Arizona. "It has to do with the inborn human tendency to anthropomorphize everything we don't understand," says Gray Sweeney, the art historian at ASU. "If it's alien, we make it look like us. That's why Martians look like blobby humans."
@body:Before he moved to Tucson to teach art, while he was still living in the Bay Area, Robert Colescott did a painting of saguaros. It was part of a series he did on Western themes, which included funny subjects of his own devising and rude copies of famous Renaissance paintings. The saguaros, he says, were "having coitus." "Even the Indians thought of them as human," Colescott says. "They have a presence. They stand up there like men with heads and arms."
Unfortunately, Colescott says the painting of the sexually active cactuses is rolled up somewhere. He's not even sure where. He's not even sure where the slide of it is. But he knows one thing about saguaros, now that he's teaching at the University of Arizona. So does everybody else. "Everybody knows saguaros are the quintessential cactus," he says. "You think of a cactus, you think of a saguaro."
@body:Mark Klett also had the Indians in mind when he began to photograph saguaro cactuses. His first series of pictures, however, focused on the brutal things people did to saguaros and, by extension, to the Sonoran Desert. There would be a cactus and, in the background, a housing development creeping closer.
A lot of the new Western landscape photographers were doing the same kind of thing--shooting pictures of toxic-waste dumps or, as in one recent show at Phoenix Art Museum, pictures of nuclear-test sites. "The realities of everyday life," Klett calls them. There is a real darkness to the new landscape work that contrasts sharply with the grandeur-of-nature school of earlier landscape photography, which had rigorously excluded the hand of man in an almost religious celebration of nature. Three years ago, Klett says, he began to "look at cactuses as individuals." The work of artists tends to evolve, anyway, but Klett thinks the change may have had something to do with the birth of his first child. At 40, he has a good position at ASU, a national reputation as an artist and a young family--reasons enough for mellowing.
In the series, Klett wanted to give the big cactuses the chance to make their own statements about themselves, to assert their own presences. "Almost all my other work was about the relationship of people to the landscape," Klett says. "With the cactuses, it was an attempt to give back an autonomy to the land."
He ticks off the different personalities cactuses can take on: sad, boastful, aggressive, pathetic--even sexual. "They're fairly straightforward portraits," he says, talking about the "Desert Citizens" as if they were human. "A lot of them," he says a bit sheepishly of the cactuses, "tend to be changing or dying." The photographs don't work so well singly, he thinks; the effect is cumulative. Some of the "Desert Citizens" were published last year in a book of Klett's work, Revealing Territory. Selections from the book will be on display in an exhibit opening Sunday, March 7, and continuing through May 2 at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. But the biggest audience for Klett's saguaros is no doubt at Sky Harbor.