Visual Arts

The Desert, Painted

It took artist Merrill Mahaffey 20 years to realize that the art he thought he liked painting was actually just the art he thought he was supposed to be painting.

"When I was in college and graduate school, the common teaching was that a painter was supposed to end up as a 20th-century abstract artist," says Mahaffey. "I was following Ad Reinhardt, and my work was becoming more and more reductive and minimalistic. It may have been the style at the time, but it made me realize that what was missing from my work was the real world."

So, Mahaffey turned his creative focus away from what he had been told to paint and toward a subject that had engulfed his personal life since childhood: the outdoors. For Mahaffey, keeping his love for the outdoors separate from his work had always been a chore.

"My childhood consisted of fishing, deer hunting, hiking -- anything outdoors," says Mahaffey. "And then, in graduate school at ASU and during the 20 years I taught at Phoenix College, my free time was spent climbing in the Superstitions and other spots around the Valley and in Colorado. At some point, I decided, 'I can paint this, too.'"

Switching to a style that allowed him to paint from this particular passion was an act of liberation. It's a change, however, that came with a price.

"In the art world, if you paint Monument Valley you go straight to hell," says Mahaffey. "It seems that there is some unwritten moral code built into the art world that tells an artist what he can and can't paint. So there was some aesthetic guilt involved."

Walk into almost any gallery in downtown Scottsdale and you will encounter enough renderings of Southwestern landscapes to cover every red-roofed house in every subdivision from Ahwatukee to Cave Creek. What makes Mahaffey's work stand out from the these is that very training in abstraction.

In Mahaffey's canvases, canyons become exercises in composition and color, rivers become painted smudges of reflected light and environment, and rock formations become studies in geometrical patterns. To him, a landscape painting is not merely a portrait of a piece of land that happens to be blessed with an eye-pleasing topography -- the type that allows one to meditate over the inherent beauty of nature. It is a work of art drawing from but ultimately independent of the land it happens to focus on. Mahaffey mines the usual desert scenes and deep veins of abstraction found in the chance designs of nature.

This new exhibition, "Essential Earth," includes several paintings that were included in his solo exhibition at the Palm Springs Desert Museum and a handful of new work. Works such as Winter Tapestry, Texas Canyon II and Redstone illustrate this tendency toward abstraction.

Winter Tapestry shows a small corner of a canyon wall after a storm. Patches of snow fill every crevice and curved vein of the rock's surface, giving the appearance of a spreading fan of glowing white.

Redstone is a closely cropped view of a rock face that shows how the changing colors and shadows conspire to give the rocks a delicate luminosity when singled out from the rest of the scene.

A gentle use of abstraction is not the only thing that separates Mahaffey's work from other landscapes. Artists, especially those in the West, have made careers of painting monumental wonders of nature such as the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley or the Colorado Rockies. Mahaffey, however, paints not specific places that carry with them some sort of natural majesty, but the common elements of nature that can be found just about everywhere.

"I was spending a good deal of time going into the mountains and using these grand scenes in my work when, after one trip, I had an epiphany of sorts," says Mahaffey. "Driving through the Indian reservation up north on my way back to Phoenix, I saw these great rocks -- not strange formations like Monument Valley -- but just the ones I had always been climbing. And I thought, 'I could make art out of this.' Drop me off anywhere in the desert, even outside of Phoenix, and I could find something to paint."

And he may not even go to hell for it.

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Joshua Rose