Scene & Herd

Some Like It Hot

Desert X curators Matthew Schum, Amanda Hunt, and Neville Wakefield. (All photos: Trinie Dalton)

I OFTEN LAMENT how disparate visual art and music coverage can feel, save in pop-culture magazines, where the restrictive new-release plug rules, so it was an authentic pleasure to experience a four-day Coachella Valley arts journalism tour linking multiple cross-disciplinary events in this stark, gorgeous desert. With the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival as the intended centrifugal force, other excursions enlightened those wishing to visit this sand-duned, palm-treed, swimming-pooled, nine-city basin anytime of year, particularly when an extended winter tests one’s patience. Sun worship informs the casual yet dedicated art spirit here.

An evening Desert X gala benefit launched the itinerary, in an almost spookily verdant, grassy courtyard at the Parker in Palm Springs, where we heard about the second iteration of this site-specific biennial. Last year’s Desert X saw over two hundred thousand live visitors and “several million virtual visitors,” said jovial founder Susan Davis in her toast, and with the same stellar curatorial team of Neville Wakefield, Amanda Hunt, and Matthew Schum, Desert X 2019 expects larger crowds. Executive director Jenny Gil, toasting and introducing Desert X board members, called Desert X a “new paradigm” for biennials, one that beckons visitors outdoors to explore environmental interactivity. In chatting with Wakefield after the intros, zero secrets were leaked about participants. “The desert curates it, and situations change,” he said sagely. All three curators, and seemingly the entire Desert X board—a remarkable, adventurous, and amicable set—relish the project because they enjoy the daring that wilderness brings. Not in a man-versus-nature way, but with nature-will-be-nature reverence.

Touring Sunnylands the next day by golf cart ruled, especially with a sassy crew of city-slicker arts journalists keeping alive provocative fashion conversation: “I wish I had my transparent Burberry raincoat here,” one said, despite not a hint of cloud puff. “Too sweaty! It would fog up,” I answered. “Never too sweaty! And, I love being squeezed. Of course, you don’t wear anything underneath,” he responded, smiling. Good point, but then I couldn’t get the vision of a Saran-wrapped nude boy out of my head while perusing this two-hundred-acre golf course/botanical garden that the media mogul, art-collecting philanthropist Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, built for arts and politics retreats. While most of the Annenberg’s billion-dollar Impressionist and post-Impressionist holdings have been donated to museum collections, Sunnylands hosts gallery exhibitions primarily dedicated to modernism. The current show features Guanajuato’s Chávez Morado brothers, who created the monumental fountain El Paraguas for Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology in 1964, and whose half-scale version graces the Sunnylands house, where the Annenbergs once hosted giant ragers.

The brothers’ visual vocabulary, inspired by the Mexican Revolution and indigenous rights, was an empowering force as we learned that the fountain was modeled after Chichen Itza’s Mayan stelae. So what if Frank Sinatra got married here? I thought, learning a less riveting historical thread. Bring on the collision between radical native aesthetics and modernism. Artist Henry Hunt’s colorful single-log red cedar totem pole, commissioned in 1976 as a magnificent monument celebrating Kwakiutl culture, finely weaves First Nations’ dialogue into that mix. Bears, seals, a wild woman of the woods, and a double-headed serpent stared down at us as we rested momentarily in its slim shade before retreating to a palo verde–canopied patio for sandwiches.

Coachella festival artist Katie Stout (left).

Coachella itself was way fun in a visual arts context. We toured the monumental public works that the festival commissions annually from artists across the globe: El Salvador, Argentina, Italy, England, and the US were all represented this time. Upon entering and walking straight to a popsicle cart, I overheard the two twentysomethings who sold me the icy bar: “I’m never going into journalism,” one said. “My professor said it pays too poorly.” Yeah, well, do it for love and cultural citizenship, I felt like telling them. But remembering I was off classroom duty, I licked my strawberry-basil pop and headed out for Katie Stout’s inventive augmented-reality installation, display this oasis, which, through an app, lets one see the artist’s fantasy, four-story tall water gardens sprawling skyward in 3-D digital form. While it obviously lacked the refreshment of real water, it was impressive to see how this talented artist shifted from materialism to virtual reality—I greatly admired her core concept: water conservation.

At sunset, I wandered over to Newsubstance’s Spectra—an impressive cylindrical skyscraper in which six thousand feet of rainbow LED panels line a spiral staircase seven stories up from the festival’s dusty field. It seemed like a good place to catch Beyoncé later that night. Though with 2018’s 25,000 tickets added to 2017’s 250,000 ticket sales, at eight months pregnant I wasn’t up for dealing with that set or Queen Bey’s after party. Too much baby bumping. Instead, I caught a tranquil Friday-night triple whammy of War on Drugs, St. Vincent, and Perfume Genius, lounging in the grass under a bright half moon, with my mocktail and pizza slice, mama-style.

Artist Armando Lerma with Coachella Walls murals.

Our tour’s closing was the highest note, introducing us to the rich culture in Coachella Valley. In contrast to Coachella festival’s gleeful, boisterous, temporary glam, a studio visit with Armando Lerma of the mural collective the Date Farmers (with partner Carlos Ramirez), in sleepy downtown Coachella, was a welcome mellow-blast. Rehabbing a sign painting company’s building in 2012, Lerma has transformed his studio into a community space and now hosts openings, parties, and mural launches through a collaborative city-funded initiative, Coachella Walls. Touring Coachella Walls, I gained real insight into the consciousness of this rural town, which Lerma said was 96 percent Mexican American and mostly involved with Imperial Valley farming. We saw murals celebrating the Delano grape strike and the Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas, and a brand new piece by Lerma and Hopi artist Ahkima Honyumptewa featuring a kachina in a fire ceremony and Ahkima as resting Amithaba.

“How do community members react to these images?” we asked. “People are mostly indifferent here, but I’m used to it,” Lerma said, laughing. I guess beautification of tired streets with paint, at its best, is its own reward, just like arts journalism. We keep on documenting and celebrating, however we can. Feeling the first undercurrent of summer sizzle, us desert residents thought of the word endurance. What’s that saying . . . if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?

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