Critics’ Picks

Kathleen Ryan, Ghost Palm, 2019, steel, acrylic, polycarbonate, 28 x 18 x 18'.

Palm Springs

Desert X

Desert X
Multiple Locations
February 9–April 23, 2019

Southern California’s deserts are geographically sprawling, environmentally diverse, historically fraught, and ever dramatized. Their appeal to artists and curators is understandable. In its first iteration in 2017, Desert X, a biennial intended to “engage viewers, and focus attention on the Valley’s environment,” veered toward spectacle, with architectural works by Doug Aitken, Richard Prince, Tavares Strachan, and others. The nineteen artists and collaboratives in the 2019 edition, which has expanded to cover some fifty-five miles around Palm Springs, has a few heavy hitters, including Sterling Ruby, who is exhibiting a fluorescent red cuboid sculpture, plunked in a distant spot; Mary Kelly, who has modified bus shelters to feature poetic texts on nuclear activism; Superflex, which has made a pink coral-like sculpture with an accompanying video that’s the aquarium equivalent of a video fireplace; and Jenny Holzer, whose projection was postponed due to a pneumonia outbreak in the sheep population near the planned site for her work.

The remaining artists are newer on the scene, and their works tackle political issues conceptually. John Gerrard’s massive computer-generated simulation of a flag of black mist, positioned at the gateway to Palm Springs, is dire, if flashy (and oddly represents the site of an oil well in Texas, not this posh town), but most of the other works are less pronounced in their site-specificity. Postcommodity brings multichannel recorded conversations on midcentury modernism to the suburban site of a modest 1950s house being renovated by one of the exhibition’s supporting sponsors, Stayner Architects. Eric Mack has draped swaths of stretchy patterned fabric across an abandoned gas station on the dying Salton Sea—a soft, sultry moment, made possible by Missoni. The biennial brochure states that Kathleen Ryan’s glitzy plastic-and-glass palm tree is adjacent to the San Andreas Fault, but doesn’t note that it’s also just outside a pricy spa. Like her transparent Ghost Palm, the show seems to vanish, swallowed up by the vastness of rocks, sand, wildflowers, money, and billboards. The long, emissions-producing car rides down lost highways to the often-underwhelming works might have you discussing the sustainability of art tourism more than the artwork itself.