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Ed Mell - Paintings of the New West

June 20 through October 31, 2010


The innovative paintings and sculptures of Phoenix artist Ed Mell depict majestic panoramas of the desert Southwest and the nuances of its flora and fauna. Mell uses contrasting light and shadow, deep space, and colors to accentuate his subject and capture ephemeral moments in nature. Ed Mell - Paintings of the New West, a new exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona is the result of a partnership between MNA and the Tucson Museum of Art. Opening Sunday, June 20 through October 31, this exhibit highlights 38 Ed Mell paintings and sculptures from 1990 to 2009. (right: Renewal © 2001 Ed Mell)

Decidedly Western in theme and expression, Ed Mell's name is synonymous with the desert Southwest. His luminous canvases of sculptural clouds stretched over distant mesas have become his stock-in-trade, earning his trademark incandescent sunsets the designation of an "Ed Mell Sky."

Rather than a photographic representation of nature, Mell brings out dramatic juxtapositions to reveal what he describes as "the impact that nature has in real life." He has worked en plein air in Arizona and Utah. The immediacy of these visual experiences allows the artist to react in adirect manner, withhis signature sense of space and color.

Born in 1942 in Phoenix, Arizona, Ed Mell attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to pursue an interest in advertising and illustration. Soon after graduation in 1967, he accepted a position in New York as an art director for a large advertising agency. Within two years, he opened Sagebrush Studios, featuring his airbrush illustration technique of angular forms inspired by art deco. Among the many publications that commissioned him for cover illustrations are National Lampoon, Esquire, and Psychology Today. He also created advertisement illustrations for Air France, Helena Rubinstein, Tang, Fabergé, among many other national accounts.

Mell received national recognition for his illustrations, but in 1971 he found a renewed connection with the landscapes of the West after spending a summer teaching art on the Hopi reservation. A year later, he returned to the Southwest to open an illustration business in Phoenix with his brother, and created landscape paintings when time permitted. Over the years, his passion for fine art gradually supplanted his commissioned illustration work. 

In 1978, he began to concentrate solely on oil painting. His dramatic approach to the Southwestern landscape included aerial views inspired by helicopter trips over important Arizona natural landmarks with Jerry Foster, a pilot and newscaster for Phoenix's KPNX-TV, and occasionally accompanied by Senator Barry Goldwater. As noted author Donald J. Hagerty notes, "The helicopter showed Mell a vertical scale and a horizon-to-horizon cinematic perspective that no earthbound traveler could see." In the mid-1980s, he expanded his oeuvre to include bronze sculptures, the most notable of which is Jack Knife, a large-scale cowboy on a bucking bronco that adorns a prominent intersection in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona.

Early recognition and success as a landscape painter allowed the artist to explore new subject matter such as stunning representations of desert flowers, longhorn cattle, bucking broncos, and cowboys.

MNA Curator of Fine Art Alan Petersen says, "Mell's modernist approach recalls Cubist principles of space, while his luminous color elicits a surreal sense of other-worldliness embodied by the desert. Like the distilled Western vistas of acclaimed artist Maynard Dixon, Mell abstracts his images of nature to intensify a scene. His paintings are celebrations of color and space that exalt the microcosm and the macrocosm of the West."

"Primarily interested in bringing emotion to a painting, Mell approaches the landscape from two perspectives: expressive realism and abstraction," Petersen continues. "When he works in a realist style, he pictures the scene as if his canvases are windows to the vistas in front of him, resulting in a tribute to nature in the tradition of painting as illusion. When he approaches the landscape from an abstract point of view, he suggests landforms and cloud formations with edges and planes energized by sublime color and lighting."

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