In Strange Vista, Mary Celeste Griffin (b. 1986, Flagstaff, AZ) traces personal and environmental narratives across the vast landscape of the American Southwest.
Currently based in Chicago where she is a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute, Griffin incorporates abstracted imagery of Southwestern topographies – mesas, canyons, mountains, desert mirages – into works that evoke and incorporate her personal memories of place. In layering together different temporalities into strange vistas and landscapes, Griffin employs a materially peripatetic approach to imagemaking, constructing her paintings and works on paper from oil, acrylic, charcoal, and spray paint, while also including garments saved from the decade she spent thrifting clothes, antique feedbags passed down from her grandmother, ephemera from art exhibitions and punk shows in Arizona, and holographic wrapping paper. The use of these disparate materials, and the presence of regional signifiers like the iconic Chevy El Camino, transform her paintings into a lived repository of memory adorned with rusted cars and etched with the uranium tailings of her Southwestern youth.
In For Lee Lee, a minnow seen during one of the artist’s childhood strolls along Sedona’s Beaver Creek is juxtaposed with bird skulls from the critically endangered California Condor. This tableau is superimposed over a bird’s eye view of Horseshoe Bend, an ecologically fragile meander in the Colorado River abutting the Navajo Reservation that was overrun during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by selfie-seeking influencers. Rendered in deep azures, light purple, and barren earth tones, For Lee Lee suggests how ecological decline recontextualizes memories of place by contrasting them with the tarnished present. The artist’s disillusionment with the commodification of landscape is made even more apparent in Seen Your Video, in which a stenciled and spray-painted dollar sign foregrounds a sacred New Mexican pueblo. Alluding to the touristic extraction of value from consecrated ground for profane gain, Seen Your Video also self-referentially reveals Griffin’s awareness of her own observer status, emphasizing that landscape painting is never a neutral endeavor, but a subjective, discursive intervention into complicated and contested histories.
Despite Griffin’s wariness about her role in the commodification of Southwestern landscapes, she is not immune to their inherent romance. The softly pinkening sky in Twenty-One Tumbleweeds induces a yearning that seems almost innate, and was inspired by cinematic sunsets on the highway between Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona. In the painting, an El Camino has swerved off the interstate into a gully of tumbleweeds, and its impastoed headlights glow nearly as achingly as the dusky sky above. The ReDeath of Condor’s hazy desertscape is shot through by explosions of purple pigment that recall the numerous mesas decapitated by Arizona’s copper mining industry. In Bye Marilyn, another El Camino barrels through a mushroom cloud whose acrid plumes are rendered in graphite and collaged detritus, including a UPS receipt.
Griffin’s attention to the interrelationship between the landscapes she’s depicting and the surface of her canvases is just as apparent in the mournful, mysterious Sundown Bog. Griffin began Sundown Bog by laying its raw canvas on the floor of her studio, marring its surface with dirt and grime, and then plasticizing the resulting creases and folds with applied gesso. An ode to the artist’s deceased grandfather, who was an environmental activist, the painting depicts a bog they frequently walked to during her childhood. A tempestuous study of fading light, Sundown Bog’s black and indigo ground is breached by shafts of yellow and orange and scribbled with Twombly-esque scrawls. Near the painting’s center, a collaged flyer depicting a hooded woman and the word ‘Tucson’ carries the arcane, ominous weight of a Mexican loteria card. By using innovative approaches to image-making to both materialize the landscapes of her youth and metaphorically imbue them with redolent personal memories, Griffin creates a poignant body of work that, instead of viewing landscape as a mere snapshot of a notable place, reveres it as a deeply inscribed and fragile container of countless sacred lives.
Mary Griffin (b. 1986, Flagstaff, AZ) was raised in the Southwestern U.S., attending Northern Arizona University (BA, 2010) and then moving to Tucson, where she worked for years in the vintage clothing industry. Currently based in Chicago, she received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2021. Now a lecturer in painting at SAIC, Mary also works at Chicago’s Goldfinch Gallery. Her work has been included in recent exhibitions at the Design Museum of Chicago, Sulk Gallery, Chicago, Hair & Nails, Minneapolis, and Everybody Gallery, Tucson (forthcoming). In 2022, Mary was invited by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam to participate in the nido residency and exhibition at Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy.
Maintaining a painting practice since childhood, Mary’s ethereal work pushes the medium’s boundaries, incorporating both a wide variety of both traditional (oil, acrylic, charcoal, spray paint, etc.) and nontraditional materials (clothing, found objects, ephemera) on canvases that showcase a deeply personal, multilayered vision of her Southwestern upbringing.