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  • The Presence of the Visual: Rock Painting at Canyon de Chelly

    Two discrete sandstone walls in the remote areas of the upper wash of the main canyon of Canyon de Chelly hold distinctive rock paintings. They appear as markedly different traditions and expressions. Both are pigment with binders applied to the stone surface. Each is located in a sheltered curve of a smooth rock face. Both are present in place, melding material and gesture to arch across time.

    Sally Cole in Legacy on Stone* argues for the use of “rock painting” rather than the more common “pictograph.” I agree. Pictograph is the word usually put forth to distinguish painted images from petroglyphs. It seems to me the term risks misleading rather than illuminating. As does “picture writings,” in common use for decades. The language of rock art often struggles between art historical thinking and archaeological categorization. Interpretation, fantasy, and speculation bring along other rich veins of textual treatment. (For the moment I will set aside the most obviously problematic term - “rock art” – promising to take that up at another time.)

    Meanwhile, back in the canyon, the figurative, iconic or indexical, and precisely articulated rock paintings continue to resonate across centuries and the dry and watered lands. For now, let’s think not about what they say or how we wish to say it - let's simply see.

    Note: Photos from a week-long camp in the Canyon in 2007 coordinated by Gary Tepfer. Gary is a professional photographer who has guided this annual trip since 1990, though photography is not the primary emphasis. His next trip is mid-October 2014. He also leads a week in May in the Chuska Mountains, on the Navajo Reservation, under the guidance of Harry Walters.  Tepfer Trips.  Gary Tepfer's Southwest Rock Art.  “Legacy on Stone: Rock Art of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners Region. 2009 (Revised and Updated).  A good overview: Campbell Grant’s Canyon de Chelly: Its People and Rock Art. 1978.