Living in the Bayou City, where the land is flat, the rains are feared and mosquitoes get fat on our blood, it's easy to forget that there's another Texas, a sun-baked region where the mountains reach for the sky and sunset means it's time for the cows to come home.
This is the Texas embraced by Marfa resident Mary Baxter, a contemporary artist who finds inspiration at Big Bend and along the Guadalupe, a place far removed from the concrete jungle of Houston.
There are a few old friends in the solo exhibit, "Mary Baxter: Painting Far West Texas," at William Reaves | Sarah Foltz Fine Art, but many of the paintings and sculptures were produced over the past year, proving that her formula for embarking on three- or four-day camping missions to sketch, draw and photograph her surroundings is a winning one.
The slow pace of her technique, observing how the shadows and light change the scene as the sun crosses the sky, translates to the finished oils. Gazing upon the more than 40 pieces in the exhibit instantly transports the viewer to the slower, less-cluttered pace of west Texas, allowing the stress of traffic and deadlines to fade away.
Dog Canyon, Near Ruidosa and Dog Canyon (Trees) are all calming and soothing. There's not a lot going on, action-wise, which concentrates the viewer's focus on how the sun illuminates the rolling hills and grasses, turning the browns and oranges into sun-drenched golds and reds. While these oils are scaled at 50 or 60 inches, smaller studies for several of the larger paintings also are on view in the central gallery of Reaves | Foltz Fine Art. It's fascinating to see what was changed, and how much of the original concept remained in the final piece.
Animals appear in several compositions. They're busy socializing, eating and gazing into the distance in A Small Herd of Goats; heading home in Dusk, Two Black Cows; and obeying primal needs in the panoramic Heading to Water, where the viewer's eye follows the cattle as they parade to the windmill and stock tank.
The mountains in this region are craggy and rock-laden, and those angles are echoed by the longhorns of the lazy quintet in Morning Sun at Study Butte. In Yearlings on a Windy Afternoon, the sheep are backlit by the setting sun, infusing warmth to the subjects and giving them an ethereal glow.
Filmmakers call the short period after sunrise and before sunset the magic hour, or the golden hour, and Baxter captures that sweet spot beautifully in Dusk Over Livingston's Pasture. Here the setting sun is on fire, illuminating the horizon in a narrow strip of pinks, oranges and yellows. Her palette knife makes a rough swoop at the sun's center, letting the pop of yellow anchor the canvas.
Baxter does play with her oils. In some paintings (the small study for Guadalupe Mountains National Park n. 3), the paint is applied so thickly it rises up from the linen panel; in others (Prickly Pear on a Hillside) the oil is allowed to run like watercolor, adding a reflective effect to the landscape.
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Of the five sculptures on view, four are from this year, and they're all whimsical and fun. We've got the inquisitive, submissive hound in Becky Speckles and her running mate, the intelligent and curious Nit Noi. There are three rabbits: a large bronze that's three feet tall (Sitting Jack Rabbit), another that's a little more than a foot tall, and a ready-to-pounce rabbit fashioned from concrete (Sphinx Jack Rabbit).
Viewers will be ready for a road trip to places like Devils River, with its bright blue waters, as well as Nugent Mountain, Chisos Mountains, Hot Spring Arroyo, Ocotillos, Rio Conchos at La Junta and Stillwell's. Turn it into an overnight stay, pack your gear, and unpack at Big Bend Ranch State Park and Guadalupe Mountains State Park.
To add greater context to the exhibition, a program in conjunction with Big Bend Conservancy is scheduled for Thursday, April 20, and an artist talk from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 22.
"Mary Baxter: Painting Far West Texas" continues through April 29 at William Reaves | Sarah Foltz Fine Art, 2143 Westheimer, open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-521-7500, reavesart.com. Free.