In Red Mesa, Monument Valley, Utah, three riders move through an overwhelming landscape dominated by a towering range of orange and red sandstone canyon facades. Dwarfed by the expansive terrain, the painting achieves Edgar Paynes's desired effect, underscoring the harmony of man and nature--a theme established early in the canon of American art by Hudson River School founders Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. "In his [Payne's] Southwestern paintings, as in all his work, the theme of the relationship between man and nature is an important one. Pirates and fishermen, packers and Navajo on horseback all move within a landscape to which they are closely related, both artistically and conceptually. In some works the conception seems romantic, but in others a profound philosophical and spiritual awareness is clearly conveyed. That his concern and respect for the natural world was neither unconscious nor automatically reflected we know from his writing. Very often it is in the desert paintings that this relationship is most clearly expressed, with Indian horsemen often shown as very small figures within a dominating landscape. There were, however, some exceptions to the general pattern that horses and men are subordinate to the landscape." (R.N. Cohen, The Paynes: Edgar and Elsie, American Artists, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1988, pp. 64-5)
Red Mesa, Monument Valley, Utah emphasizes the rhythms of space, form, color, and light in a decidedly modern treatment. Thoroughly conscious of composition, Payne has concentrated his figures together in the lower center portion of the canvas to emphasize the enormity of the Utah landscape. In discussing another work from the period, author Rena Coen comments, "but it is not so much about the light that dominates this composition as the steady rhythm of the scene, creating a clear, visual unity between the near rock masses and the farther ones fading in steady cadence into the subtle lavender blues of the distance. Edgar instinctively recognized the elemental human need for organizing rhythm in pictorial composition and he compared its function in painting to music and dance." (The Paynes: Edgar and Elsie, American Artists, p. 67)
Contrasted with the weight of this dominating landscape, sweeping clouds stretch beyond the physical limits of the canvas edge to create a rhythmic presence of an almost abstract color-field design. A heavy shadow occupies the foreground of the valley lending a sense of further movement to the overall landscape as the riders gently pass through the scene approaching the viewer. While emphasizing the seemingly infinite landscape of the American west, Payne's work also serves as a thoughtful and genuine depiction of the Native American in their natural setting, a frontier that was witnessing rapid change.