PRINT September 2003


High Desert Test Sites

WELCOME TO THE REAL of the Desert: rocks, heat, cacti, empty beer cans, all-terrain vehicles, horizon, fire ants, lizards—and contemporary art.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re heading east from Los Angeles on the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, more prosaically known as Route 10. We pass Diamond Bar, Rancho Cucamonga, and other barely distinguishable towns, about two hours later approaching the giant windmills of Morongo that mark the passage from the semi-arid desert to the arid extra-dry desert. Our destination is High Desert Test Sites, a project providing alternative space in the Southern California desert for more than thirty artists to make and show experimental work. Organized by artist Andrea Zittel, gallerists John Connelly and Shaun Caley Regen, and collector Andy Stillpass, HDTS, according to its website, undertakes “to challenge traditional conventions of ownership, property and patronage.” My friend Cindy Ojeda and I decided to see how this lofty, if quixotic, goal actually looks, as it were, on the ground.

On the Morongo Indian Reservation, which straddles Route 10, there’s an enormous mall of designer outlet stores, a casino, and a huge, photogenic dinosaur made of concrete that was featured in the film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. These landmarks demarcate a significant geological and cultural cleavage: Toward the right is Route 111 and the dubious glamour of Palm Springs; toward the left, a half hour away, is the upper or “high” desert of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, location of U2’s epiphanies, Gram Parsons’s fatal overdose and surreptitious cremation, and the country’s largest Marine Corps training facility, the Air-Ground Combat Center.

Taking the left fork on our art-viewing Big Adventure, we eventually notice a forlorn temporary carnival plunked down in a vacant lot, its Ferris wheel rotating languidly with a few glum kids in its seats. We’ve arrived in the town of Yucca Valley, location of the first of seven “test sites” spread out over sixty miles. Stopping for a moment in a nearby Sears parking lot to check our directions, we see a vintage-car show attracting a smattering of admirers to its cherry ’63 Corvair, ’65 Mustang, and ’69 GTO convertible occupying a row of parking spaces. A ’66 El Camino rumbles up, with red flames painted on its side, giant steer horns fastened on its hood, and hide covering its overhead-cam engine. It looks like a mobile barbecue.

Site One, HDTS’s Welcome Center of sorts, is only a couple of blocks away. Here, on the walls of a small storefront, are drawings and paintings by young local artists in the text-heavy, punk-album style of early Raymond Pettibon. “Hey,” says Dave Hopkins, a twenty-one-year-old Yuccan with shaved head, nose ring, and two arms full of tattoos. He shakes our hands in greeting, gives us a map to the sites, and sells us the HDTS catalogue while his friend stands nearby, looking at us and laughing mirthlessly but uncontrollably in the staccato rhythm of a machine gun. It’s 11 AM and the friend reeks of gin. Drawing on my own fond Southern California high school recollections, I think I recognize the teeth-gnashing jitters of a meth head.

Leaving Site One rather hastily, we drive out past Shear Illusions—the penchant for puns for hair-salon names is apparently a nationwide phenomenon—and, following the HDTS map, turn left at Old Woman Springs Road and head north toward Victorville. Snowcapped mountains glimmer in the distance, and in the foreground, a row of trailers squat in the sun. About fifteen minutes later we arrive at sandy and bumpy Gamma Gulch Road, location of Site Two. We park, get out of the car, and, it being well over 100 blazing degrees, retrieve our ridiculously wide-brimmed sun hats from the trunk.

Wandering aimlessly—there are no signs or “wall” texts, but we are equipped with our catalogues—we soon come across a nine-foot-high wooden X amid the Joshua trees. The sculptural installation, by Wade Guyton, seems to offer architectural support for the trees, marking the spot of its own algebraic indeterminacy amid the rocks, dormant shrubs, and other forms of rump nature that surround it. Nearby is a lovely little purple concrete octopus, by Kate Costello, which looks as though it has been washed a hundred miles ashore onto the parched desert floor, where it now sits perkily. Fifty yards up a dirt path is Tao Urban’s oasis-like Water Kiosk (Tap Water Pavilion), 2003, a roofed structure with four large containers of water from different California rivers, the premise of which, according to the catalogue, is “to create a place for people to sit in the shade, drink a little water and take in the landscape.” These instructions are pleasant to follow, and probably necessary: The heat is starting to make me dizzy.

Driving back toward Yucca in our mercifully airconditioned car, we pass Pioneertown, which had been built in 1946 as a movie set for westerns, featuring a “Mane Street,” a covered wagon, an OK Corral, and a swing-doored saloon. I half expect somebody to be tossed out of the touristy watering hole at any moment for creating a ruckus. One of the original investors in the town was Roy Rogers, who also built the nearby bowling alley. I discover later that Ed Ruscha has a house out here, which somehow seems right: Pioneertown, like Ruscha’s work, conveys a meaningful vacancy.

All this driving makes us as peckish as the buzzards we see perched on the roadside creosote bushes, so, turning left on Route 62, we stop for lunch at the Country Kitchen. A gregarious Cambodian woman takes our order while a Native American man surlily cooks up food in the kitchen. The clientele is mostly old men in wheelchairs: Are they wounded veterans, we wonder, or just run-of-the-mill convalescent-home clients? Someone comes in with an American flag that he is lovingly refurling. I begin to notice the phalanx of tied yellow ribbons and the handwritten “Welcome Home Troops” signs lining the street. This is the first weekend in which some of the Marine battalions, fresh from the invasion of Iraq, will be returning to the area. We order the homemade apple pie, which is delicious, and leave.

We drive out past the grid of roads, which seems to have been blasted out of the landscape, to Test Site Three, located on public land on a dry lake bed. The map promises us an “impromptu shooting range that has been assimilated into the test sites inventory by Hal McFeely,” which, in small print, it advises us to “view at [our] own risk.” A pair of women on three-wheeled motorized dirt bikes zoom past us in halter tops, hooting joyfully, and off in the distance we can see a war cloud of dust kicked up by a noisy swarm of off-road vehicles. There is a lone golf ball by the side of the road—sand shot practice?—and cardboard is liberally strewn everywhere.

Approaching a crossroads, we look for a ten o’clock turnoff that would take us to the shooting range, where abandoned washing machines have been turned by high-caliber rifles to lacelike sculptures, but after a half hour of searching, our internal compasses begin to swing wildly, so we head back to downtown Twentynine Palms. (I hear later that McFeely has put a small billboard out here with an unflattering portrait of George W. Bush, announcing “Loot the Art but Save the Oil,” which is destroyed in a matter of hours.)

Turning right at the yellow bail bonds sign, we stop by Andrea Zittel’s property, A-Z West, location of Site Five. Wandering onto the lunarlike terrain, we see some of the artist’s trademark living pods painted in various hues and designs, a gutted trailer with A-Z logo, and a dozen or so three-foot-high metal music stand–like structures, on which are placed papier-mâché squares drying in the sun. (Zittel has been recycling her paper waste to create art; the squares resemble open books containing weighty, impenetrable text.) Her house is a splendid example of the utopian impulse that drives most of her work and, it seems, her life: Located at the foot of a giant mountain of rocks that look as if they have been spewed by a dyspeptic volcano, the modest, ’50s-era structure has a sunken brick horse trough/sitting area in front and a metal bathtub in the backyard. Peering into a window, we see a room that is equal parts Bauhaus and frat house, with a large central space that fuses kitchen, living room, and den.

A bit concerned that that we are in fact trespassing, we stroll up the adjacent wash and are greeted by a handwritten sign affixed to a tall post, appropriately announcing I’M SORRY. Chris Kasper’s apology in the desert looks particularly sincere amid Chris Beas’s giant badminton court and a purple plastic sculpture of jellyfish stranded on the desert floor by Josh Beckman. On the top of a hill is Leo Villareal’s sequenced light sculpture, The Joshua Tree of Life, based on a fusion of Old Testament and Mormon narratives, which seems to be pointing the way to a new Zion (or beckoning to a light-seeking UFO). Nearby are Joseph Heidebrecht’s two large paintings of female figures left to parch; circling each painting is cut-out text that relies on the position of the sun to make it legible as shadow. As we leave, we pass Kahty Chenoweth’s little booth for her Personal Space Wear, Oiticica-like garments for desert exploration; heat, dust, and embarrassment prevent us from trying them on. Driving off, we hear coyotes commencing their twilight howls, and by the side of the road a thickly bearded acid-casualty waves slowly, silently, and rhythmically at us, like a sun-damaged Michelin Man.

Everything is beginning to feel hallucinatory. HDTS seems more off-the-grid than most installation art and more of a total experience than most environmental art. It’s as though the surrealist fantasy of art fused with life has come to fruition in the Southern California desert. Yet this “life” seems somehow both accelerated and voided, and the car inoculates us from any feeling of lasting connection.

After an early-evening dip in the pool at our motel, situated in the delightfully named Oasis of Mara, on land expropriated from the local Indians and granted to the families of mineral explorers, we head out to Site Six, located at the Palms restaurant and bar. On the way we pass a billboard by Jack Pierson that succinctly reads NOTHING in glittery, ’70s-era font. Pierson also has a house in the area, which has become something of a bohemian enclave since Zittel, whose grandparents once owned a farm nearby, moved here a few years ago. More than two hundred Southern California art-school types have descended on the Palms. At the bar, redneck bikers and fey interior designers jostle for the crotchety-but-benign bartender’s attention. An Elizabeth Peyton watercolor is supposed to be on a wall somewhere, but in the midst of the hubbub we can’t find it. Meanwhile, out back, ethereal videos are looping and beers are flowing but there is a long backlog for burger orders (there being no other place to eat within twenty miles). Overheard from one of the hungry young artists: “I’m so wasted I can’t see the stars.” My last recollection of the evening is of Zittel delivering, expert-waitress style, plates full of burgers to Palms patrons.

Rising early—we skipped the late-night “afterparty” at Site Seven, located a good twenty-five DWI-miles east of the Palms—we decide to spend the morning in Joshua Tree National Park. Like many American national parks, JTNP is both picturesque and car-friendly. Moving at a leisurely pace, we see hundreds of elegant Joshua trees improbably offering up their spindles to the heavens. A golden eagle hovers above, while cute little kangaroo rats (which hop on their hind legs but aren’t in fact marsupials) peek out from behind cactus bushes. We pull over and I catch a glimpse of a roadrunner racing along the desert floor (with no sign whatsoever of a wily coyote or any Acme products). All about us, deep red rock formations enhanced by shadows create amazingly suggestive sculptural shapes. I am sincerely grateful to Zittel for bringing me back to this location, which I haven’t visited for more than ten years. But there is more manmade art to see, so we head out of the park and over to Site Four, our last remaining stop.

Noah Purifoy is an African-American artist who has been assembling an “outdoor art museum” of his work in Joshua Tree since relocating thirteen years ago from Los Angeles, where he was involved in early attempts to preserve the Watts Towers. Purifoy’s art draws much from the bricolage technique of Simon Rodia, the Towers’ architect: Materials include motorcycle mufflers, air conditioner parts, lawn chairs, toilets, bedsprings—whatever he can find in volume. While Rodia’s tower was by necessity vertical, seven and a half acres of desert property allows Purifoy, who was born in rural Alabama, to work horizontally. He makes big assemblages, such as the Kirby Express, a train comprising old vacuum cleaners, beer cans, a baby carriage, a smudge pot, and a swamp cooler, mounted on bicycle wheels and placed on a self-fashioned railroad track. There are several small sculptures made of bowling balls. Elsewhere, Christian iconography predominates: A huge cross made of charred wood looms over theater seats designed for crucifixion viewing. Purifoy’s outside(r)(ish) work and his commitment to the desert (and to junk) as a life project probably best embodies the HDTS “mission” to resist the snares of the art world. But even he has a “Foundation,” with, as Purifoy’s pamphlet notes, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization status.

As we head back to LA, Cindy and I talk about how difficult it is for even high-minded artists, gallerists, and collectors (not to mention writers) to “challenge traditional conventions of ownership, property and patronage” in a world so thoroughly penetrated by property, markets, and their ideologies, supported by a network of power that extends all the way to such locations as Air-Ground Combat Centers. What if there is in fact no “outside” to this “desert of the Real”? In the end, what HDTS does best is not to open a utopian space of unfettered creativity liberated from this matrix but to allow interesting (“insider”) art and the (Real) desert to reframe one another, in all of their ambition and compromise, astounding beauty and pitiful degradation. “Let the desert take hold of you,” concludes the text of the official map and guide to the Joshua Tree National Park. In this sense, it did—with all of the ambivalent intimacy of an unfamiliar relative.

Nico Israel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.