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In the back of the exhibition space for "And the Land Grew Quiet: New Work by Matthew Moore" sits a crazy one-and-a-half-scale stud-skeleton house. Built askew and appearing to be sinking into the ground, the house is surreal. Walk through its beams and a disorienting sense of vertigo might knock you off-kilter.
Which is exactly what happened to Matthew Moore, fourth-generation West Valley farmer and Arizona-based artist, when he came home from art school in 2001 to see that 320 acres of citrus trees had been clear-cut near the family farm. For the first time, he could see the lights of Phoenix. The land was cleared for suburban development, some of which has not come to pass.
The startling change was a demarcation line for Moore — then in his mid-20s — both personally and artistically. Much of his work as an artist has been focused on grappling with and documenting his sense of displacement from the land on which he was raised.
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"And the Land Grew Quiet" is a site-specific, project-based exhibition, which means it is not a traditional show made up of different works of art by the artist, but was designed as one work (comprising several components) specifically for the Phoenix Art Museum.
Moore and the museum began talking about the exhibition back in 2009, says Sara Cochran, curator of modern and contemporary art, and the conversation continued over the next two years as a vision for the show became realized. It's very exciting for the museum to cultivate this kind of show, she says, because the curatorial staff didn't see the finished pieces — built to spec — until they were installed in the museum, and fine-tuning took place right up until the opening.
It speaks to the museum's confidence in Moore as an artist. It took a risk that paid off. This is an important show.
When I ask Matthew Moore, "What's happening on the farm now?" he replies: "Growing carrots and parsnips and mixed vegetables. It's nice weather for growing carrots."
Don't let his matter-of-fact answer fool you — a solo exhibition for any artist is a big deal. But right now, Moore's got about 200 acres of carrots planted. "You never stop farming," says Moore. "My father is semi-retired, but he helps out when I am swamped with art and other business." They still grow a lot of produce on his family farm in the West Valley. At least for now. At some point in the near future, the farm almost certainly will make way for housing.
Matthew Moore, 36, grew up in the shadow of the White Tank Mountains, surrounded by a perimeter of citrus trees. As a kid, he knew only that it took a long time to get to the grocery store, and Phoenix seemed far off in the distance. "Visual landscape defines everything as a child," says Moore. The land that was clear-cut of citrus is now leased to farmers — usually with a 60-day notice if and when the owner wishes to sell the land.
For "And the Land Grew Quiet," Moore has created a contemplative environment around the issues of land use, how land is valued, suburban growth, and economic speculation. It lays out big issues with no easy answers. The show isn't so much about providing answers as it is to say that there is something unsettling going on. Things feel off. What direction are we going? What is the thing that's going to level it out? How did we get here?
When Moore finished graduate school, he returned to the farm. He wanted to archive and absorb as much as he could about the farm before it went away. He started making works of art that documented some of the changes that were happening to the landscape around him, as well as consumers' disconnectedness from food production.
In the tradition of land art, he began working with the physical farmland. One such project was Single Family Residence (2004). Moore planted 20 acres of drought-tolerant barley and then mapped out a 450-by-950-foot floor plan into the field. He created the floor plan's layout by carving the image into the growing barley with a hoe. It took months. To capture the large scale of the project, he relied on aerial photography and video.
In Rotations: Moore Estates (2005), he planted sorghum and wheat on 35 acres of the family farm in a one-third scale replica of the layout (complete with roads and culs-de-sac) of the first planned community to be built on a portion of his family's land.
Around the time of the nation's 2008 financial crisis, Moore began reading about the Dust Bowl, becoming interested in the parallels between the Great Depression and the 2008 recession. "So I decided I need to do my due diligence and read Steinbeck. I don't know the last time you read The Grapes of Wrath, but I would encourage anyone to read it," says Moore. "It is so interesting to read in the context of what's going on now — a xenophobia — it's like we are on repeat and no one's acknowledging it." He dug in to use that material as a starting point.