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by Judith Christensen

(TAG, The Artists’ Gallery, Santa Monica) The cross-country road trip. This quintessential American pilgrimage is rooted in our history. Who doesn’t have a vivid, if not idealized, mental picture of adventuresome pioneers heading West across the vast expanse of land? In the last century, as cars multiplied and highways became the nation’s arteries, the road trip become a symbol--literarily exemplified in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, among others--of a rite of passage, a journey of self-exploration and a search for connections.

It is in this vein that Anne M. Bray takes to the road. The question she asks in the exhibit’s title, Are We There Yet? is as metaphorical as it is literal. Her images of the forty-eight contiguous states consist of pastel drawings and smaller digital prints. It’s an unusual pairing, but a successful one, given Bray’s approach to the subject matter.

The images in the pastels are, for the most part, stark--highways stretching into the distance or placid farmland--yet intimate. Because they’re hand-drawn, you feel the artist’s involvement with the place. In Pecan Grove: Dona Ana Co., NM Bray responds to the symmetry of the rows and the way the light throws the shadows of slender young trees across the golden ground. It may have been a scene only glanced at as she passed on the highway, but in the course of drawing the image and applying the layers of pigment, the artist achieves a sense of familiarity, as if she came to know the grove thoroughly by walking slowly through it. It is the process that imparts this intimacy--much like the intimacy you feel engaging in a conversation with locals at a small-town café.

"US 93, Mohave County, AZ,"
digital print, 16 1/2 x 14", 2000.

“Pecan Grove, Dona Ana Co.,
NM," pastel, 19 3/4 x 29", 1995.

On the other hand, even when you walk the ground, eat the food, engage in the talk, isn’t the sense of familiarity an illusion? Don’t you always remain the outsider, the one just passing through? This is the perspective Bray captures in her digital prints. Although the artist manipulates the images, they retain a sense of distance from their subject--like a visitor rather than a resident of the place. In the more recent prints, Bray superimposes an image in the shape of the state’s outline over a map of the state and attaches a hand-scribbled, torn-paper note about the location. US 93, Mojave County, AZ shows the black pavement of the highway stretching to infinity, billowy white clouds rising above a thin layer of low clouds and an intensely-blue sky. It’s all there--the traveler’s isolation, the place as a point on the map, the lines on the map that function as a daily guidebook, the road you’re on and the road ahead, the present and the future.

The road trip is about the experience, about trying on different places for size--to see what it feels like. But ultimately, it’s not about that other place, but about how we see it, how we see the lives of the people who live there and, in turn, how that allows us to see the life we live. Bray’s images are less about Texas and Arizona and Wyoming and more about what it might feel like to pass through there on your way to somewhere else.