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E s s a y R e v ie w A F r u it f u l E m p t in e s s : Po e t s a n d A r t is t s o f t h e G r e a t Ba s in Reg io n B e r t A l m o n The Great Basin, an area bounded by the Rocky M ountains and the Sierra N evada on the east and west, and by the Colum bia Plateau and the M ojave and Sonoran deserts to the north and south, is the biggest Am erican desert, a landlocked region whose rivers have no outlets. W hereas most Am ericans think of the heat of the M ojave or the shape of the saguaros in Arizona’s Sonora when they imagine a desert, the G reat Basin is a cool desert with few cacti. In the intro­ duction to his collection of essays about the American West, The Sound of Mountain Water, Wallace Stegner uses aridity as a key to under­ standing the area, and he finds the core of the West in the deserts of Rita Deanin Abbey. DESERT SPACE. 1978. Acrylic on canvas. 70" x 50". BERT ALMON 3 4 7 the Great Basin, which run through parts of Oregon, Idaho, N evada, and Utah: “These deserts, said the late W alter Webb, are the truest West, its dead and arid heart” (qtd. in Stegner 14). Dead and arid they may be, but deserts inspire poets and painters as well as mystics and prophets. The inspirational force of the sim­ plicity and emptiness of the desert is not addressed on the Bureau of Land M anagem ent’s excellent Great Basin home page— called “The Big Empty”— but creators have been nourished by the power of that region’s landscape or have struggled mightily to render it. In his book on N evada artists, Mapping the Empty, W illiam L. Fox says of the landscape north of Reno, “This entire desert region, the big empty of Am erica, is visually and spiritually compelling” (35). A nd so with that in mind, it is worth considering what contemporary artists and poets have done with it. Fox, a poet and editor who has thought a great deal about the Great Basin, has written a fine book about visual artists in N evada, the state which contains the largest portion of the Great Basin region. Landscape is his theme, a theme of central importance to anyone interested in western writing. In discussing his painters, he observes a process of land and artist informing each other and “how that process helps create the larger cultural perception we label landscape , a mental construct transforming neutral terrain into a place where we live” (xxi). Such a process influences the work of every important western writer; the mental construct may be shaped by ecology, angry conservationism, or a mystical vision, and it may be pri­ marily a linguistic construct, as in the writers, or a visual one, among the artists. Fox is particularly insightful in the ways that contemporary artists have managed to deal with the landscape without falling into the picturesque. He is not interested in cowboy art or the kind of oldfashioned representation which has degenerated into mall art pictures of mountains and deserts. Rather, he deals with innovative artists who have found new terms for envisioning the land. These are postm od­ ern artists for whom representation is problematic rather than taken for granted. Piet M ondrian is more relevant to their work than Frederic Rem ington or Charles Russell. Fox is admittedly concerned with the European tradition, and he devotes some of his space to the expeditions of John Charles Frémont in the 1840s and the explorations of John Wesley Powell after the Civil War. These are important figures for the literary historian: Stegner made much of Powell and wrote an accomplished biography 3 4 8 WAL 3 4 .3 F a l l 1999 of him, Beyond the 100th Meridian. The early works of the United States Geological Survey (which Powell took over in 1881) were fine...


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