Visual Arts

Mow Better Blues

Turf-building ranks second only to body-building as an American obsession. Our lawns have grown into a 25 million acre habit, costing roughly $7 billion a year in grass-care materials and machinery alone -- and that's not counting the chunks of lava rock strewn all over Sun City.

They guzzle immeasurable gallons of water. They consume 6 billion pounds of fertilizers and 67 million pounds of pesticides.

Such tallies have justifiably made the soothing green carpet beneath so many fond suburban memories the target of claims of waste.

In recent years, a spate of green-minded magazine articles and Web sites have declared the environmental evils of lawns and the fake nature for which they stand.

And landscape scholars have thrown layers of academic mulch into the mix, tracing the modern lawn to commoners' gardens and aristocratic pastures of the 18th century.

So it seems only natural -- or fated -- that artists would somehow find a place of their own at this festive picnic.

Three years ago, the Canadian Centre for Architecture launched "The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life," a major exhibition with a catalogue dense enough with art and documentation to have consumed a small forest in British Columbia.

Now Mesa Contemporary Arts is trimming the edges of the topic with "This American Lawn" -- a name reworked from the National Public Radio show This American Life.

Like most of MCA's exhibitions, this one was culled from slides. It is a lite show that includes some 20 works by 12 artists, both local and from elsewhere. The represented media range from photographs, installations and sculptures to a video, a print and even some jewelry.

Most of the works are entertaining strokes along the lines of "what lawns mean to me." Some, like Harriete Estel Berman's Square Yard of Grass, take on the conspicuous-consumption aspect of lawns. Others, like Joel Armstrong's Clothes Lines, stir fond remembrances of lawns past.

That fondness persists because -- despite the environmental ills attributed to the perfection of our little pastures -- the sights, sounds and smells of turf linger in memory as the ground of so many firsts: first drudgery, behind a mower or at the clothesline; first sporting victories and defeats; first kisses with someone sprawled on a secluded slope.

These are hardly the reasons our green-thumbed colonial founders sought to tame the prairies, or why in the 19th century landscape architects made manicured yards, both vast and small, the essential aesthetic of urban parks and neighborhoods. But they've undoubtedly motivated more than a few modern homeowners to habitually seed and feed and water, and just as habitually fall in behind a roaring, gas-guzzling Briggs & Stratton-powered mower to manicure the green.

Armstrong's Clothes Lines taps the breezy side of the subject by presenting a life-size tableau, consisting of genuine strips of sod, their edges curling from dryness, and two rusty "T"-barred supports strung with four lines. The lines are hung with clothes drawn Calder-like with stoutly gauged wire, and a recording broadcasts cheery summer sounds of dogs barking, children laughing and a sprinkler spouting the familiar chicka-chicka-chicka. The overlap of sound and image, with its calligraphy of wire-drawn pants, underwear, shirts, shorts, and a child's doll, sets the lyrical tone of the show.

Berman's Square Yard of Grass adds to that with the sculpture itself, whose lawn-like bladedness derives from multicolored slivers of aluminum containers, game boards, cookie boxes and other recyclables, and a video that humorously documents the making of the piece.

The yard's small, glittering square of greens, yellows and blues has the vibrancy of a sun-brightened lawn. Yet its metal-as-grass incongruity echoes the irony of Meret Oppenheim's Surrealist-inspired fur-lined tea cup and spoon from the 1930s.

These two works by Berman and Armstrong are about as good as this show gets.

Kara Dowdall and Brian Gryskiewicz teamed up to sculpt an insignificant spoof -- titled Love Me-Hate Me -- about the manic-depressive cycle of pleasure, annoyance and pointlessness of lawn care. The model-size work, made of wood and glazed ceramic, features green, Tootsie Roll-shaped blades of grass corralled beneath a miniature real estate sign printed with ho-hum contradictions like "birth me/kill me," "grow me/cut me" and "real me/fake me."

Robbie Baker's small sculptures of a mobile home with a roof outfitted with pressure gauges, and a bird house atop an auger tip -- the connection with lawns escapes me -- are similarly lighthearted and innocuous.

But the surprising aspect of the show is the weakness of its photography. The landscape theme is tailor-made for modern lenses. And a good deal of exceptional images have been produced by contemporary photographers.

But none appears here. Amy Snyder's The Mower offers the predictable iconic image of a hefty man behind a mower.

Dean Burton's series of 18 small black-and-white photographs, The Urban Lawn Project -- depicting bits of grass and other yard growth held with pliers in front of the lens -- play up the uneasy link between the manmade and nature-made.

And Marilyn Szabo's black-and-white photographs of the rock lawns of Sun City reduce a subject begging for color to muddy tones of gray.

Yet these weak spots are easy to escape in a gallery filled with the soothing sounds of summer. The chicka-chicka whispers of the recorded sprinkler, the woof of dogs and bright titters of children are strong enough to open an imaginary window onto a lawn where, somewhere in the distance, a mower growls.