Visual Arts

"And the Land Grew Quiet" at Phoenix Art Museum

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.

"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.

"And the Land Grew Quiet" is a departure for Moore in the sense that this is not an exhibition created with natural elements. However, it is one informed by all the exploration that Moore brings with him from his previous work.

The exhibition space features a simple color palette of white and tan and is made up of a few narrative elements such as embossed paper scrolls featuring phrases from Waiting on the Bounty, Mary Knackstedt Dyck's diary of living through the Dust Bowl; fragments of writing about the land by Moore and his grandmother; and snippets from The Grapes of Wrath — phrases like, "All of them were caught in something larger than themselves." Also, there's a scroll featuring a large-scale topographic map of the landscape with contours and natural features — the rise and fall of the landforms.

The walls of the exhibition space also have been embossed — mapping suburban growth in Buckeye and Sun City, as well as the legacy of the Dust Bowl in Tulare, California, and on the Kansas plains.

A third element is large-scale mechanical pedestals almost reminiscent of farm or industrial machinery. Scrolling along these are land contracts, complete with legal verbiage and redacted text that speak to the complexity of trying to describe boundaries. Also, ticker tape from four stock market crashes spits out of a machine and pools on the floor below.

All the while, in the background, there is that stud-skeleton house constructed on a scale one-and-a-half times normal size. It evokes the dream of a family home, but the tilted cant of the house lets us know that something is off. During the Dust Bowl, houses were buried up to their windowsills in dirt, making the houses look as if they'd sunk into the ground. The installation also summons images of houses that lie abandoned on the periphery of suburbia — empty, deserted-looking spaces.

When I think of some of Moore's earlier work and his planting wheat and sorghum, tending the crops, and weeding them, it occurs to me that these activities give the artist time for mental fermentation. I'm curious how this process might change for him when he is putting together a show like this one — a site-specific installation. Moore says, "With earth works, there is an unreliability of elements and how [they are] going to turn out. The museum has its own act of God, if you will — walls that aren't square, a fixed space, etc."

Moore applied the same discipline in creating this exhibition. The space is meticulously rendered. There is a seamlessness to the embossed walls. And time-based aspects to the show are still present. Visitors are encouraged to touch one of the embossed scrolls, and over the course of the exhibition, an inking of the paper by visitors' hands will take place. Likewise, the buildup and accumulation of ticker tape on the gallery floor will continue throughout the show's run. You may even catch Moore there, tending to it all. As an artist, Moore, is the real deal.

The show is demanding. It is designed to be reflective. The movements of the scrolls are slow and sustained. It also is designed to be one work. You move through the space starting with the resilient voice found in the diary fragments of Mary Knackstedt Dyck. The white of the embossed paper, the wonderful smell of the pine beams of the stud-skeleton house, and the subtle mechanical buzzing sounds play on the senses. Moore presents a number of ways to look at the land, from the more poetic and abstract to the topographical and harsh.

If you go, slow yourself down and give yourself the time to contemplate, because this show might quietly blow you away. It asks the viewer to question what's going on and not just be complicit. As desert dwellers, can we retain the right to be limitless?

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sativa Peterson
Contact: Sativa Peterson