“Pit: 39°, 30’N, 118°, 65W: Site 1”

Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, University Of Nevada

About 70 miles east of Reno, near the small farming and ranching community of Fallon, is a site known as the “dead-animal dump.” A necessary feature of the local economy, the dump is the place where dead cows, horses, sheep, coyotes, and family pets are disposed of. Such places are rare now, but were once common throughout the West. Since the late ’60s a network of trenches has been dug and filled in a small sandy mound in this high desert valley of northern Nevada. You drive your pickup onto the mound and dump your dead animal. A single trench is always open. In summer, the stench is thick as a blanket.

“Pit: 39°, 30’N, 118°, 65’W: Site 1” was the first of six annual Nevada site exhibitions. Its focus was the Fallon dump, and its primary interest lay in its documentation of a regional high-desert sensibility inspired since the mid ’60s by the funk and figuration schools of northern California, but anchored in a deep and abiding regard for place. The best Nevada art tends to be of a site, but not really site work. Rather, it is something that calls across the physical and cultural expanse that isolates the gallery from the landscape. A sense of spatial and contextual dislocation typified the works in this show, many of which incorporated bones, skins, and earth from the dump as collage. The act of reclaiming something dead for art, of displacing its remains into the gallery crypt, generates the profound dissonance of space as a metaphor for death. Made from the dead; the art here was equal parts artifact and artifice, both authentic and fictive; even pictorial works, such as Diane Dunn’s life-cyclic watercolor and Jim McCormick’s realist treatment of decay, were about death as a form of spatial severance.

In her self-portrait sculpture Gravity, 1984, Katrina Lasko constructs an image of figural decay, the antithesis of flight, a rotting corpus of wire, bones, cloth, and lead-gray plaster which seems to sink into the ground. A snake weaving down through it like an artery invokes the Christian myth of Eve’s original sin, a burden for which gravity is a metaphor. Lasko’s sense of female vulnerability too often finds its artistic equivalent in an overly personalized timidity, but here she offers an image of Venus as a carrion shell decaying into the earth rather than rising out of it—a tough assertion of physical mortality locked in an ambivalent, culturally imposed embrace with spiritual guilt. By contrast, the Biblical references in Walter McNamara’s bone, wood, and steel sculpture Bone Chopper for H. B., 1984, are dryly sardonic. On a chipped wooden altar supported by two stainless steel legs, an axe with a blade fashioned from the jawbone of a horse is sunk into a bone-shaped piece of applewood. The iconography alludes to the Biblical motifs of Adam’s rib, the “jawbone of an ass,” the sacrifice of Isaac, and the poison apple of paradise. Meanwhile, the metamorphic interplay of elegantly crafted organic and mineral surfaces suggests a conflict among life-and-death forces. McNamara often uses bones and other found desert objects in sculptures best described as kinds of an ossified, existentialist funk, but he usually blunts the psychic edge in his works with humor. Here, as it chews on sweet applewood, the jawbone axe pokes fun at death as a kind of theological tooth decay.

Bob Morrison, whose recent installations have been concerned with randomly generated sound, addresses what might be called the sound of smell in his wall piece, Five Odd Winds, 1984. By electrically inducing vibrations in paper respirator masks, Morrison broadcasts a series of irreverent snorts, gurgles, farts, and something like the incessant sound of flies. The sentiment in Tom Holder’s photo-collage horses, sadly dipping their heads into a wood-and-glass reliquary box, drains the monumentality from his monument to the wagon-wheel past. These and other pieces–by Mick Sheldon, Lynda Yuroff, David Arnold, Ted Cook, and Dan Adams—were typified by a certain psychic seepage.

For Kirk Robertson, who lives three miles from the dumpsite, decay and dislocation suggest esthetic anarchy. In Trophy, 1984, the artist mounts a deer’s head on an old board painted with horizontal pink and yellow stripes and splattered with dry cement. In so doing he puns on Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram from 1959, lays down Barnett Newman’s zips as symbols for death, and alludes to the aging conventions of Abstract Expressionist gesturalism. A combine of dump-site debris, the work represents a collision of art-making strategies and reminds us in its contextual violence of a deer being hit by a truck.

The Great Basin region is home to an array of crumbling earthworks. Its best artists are well aware that the vernacular term “site” no longer means “scene.” Yet they treat the dead-animal dump as subject matter for gallery art, and the art, shamanistic and tough though it is, shifts uncertainly among conceptions of the dump as a pictorial source, a myth-specific hub, an art ground, and a novel exhibition theme. The problem lies less with the art than with a curatorial equation of art to site that effectively trivializes Robert Smithson’s site/nonsite dialectic. Framed by the conventions of the Modernist object, the brittle existentialism that typifies the best Nevada art is too often expressed here as a tepid romanticism, as merely picturesque. Even so, it is well to remember that in the Great Basin a Modernist gallery is still a fort surrounded by philistines.

Perhaps fittingly, it was a poet who dealt most effectively with the distance beween the gallery and the dump, the gap between art and death. On a long, narrow scroll of brown paper torn at one edge and lain across the floor, Bill Fox typed an entropic, Minimalist elegy. Like crow-tracks in the sand, the words in Longpoem in the Pit, 1984, were arranged in a diagonally descending pattern that required the reader to straddle the paper, look down, and move backward in a manner analogous to staring into the pit itself. Instead of displacing dump-site evidence into the gallery, Fox restaged the quiet, nose-to-the-ground activity of deciphering so common among visitors to the dump. As one read, the words decomposed into each other with a poetic inevitability. As they fell down the page, they spread across the floor, where language was itself a site, the written word a figure, the page its ground. Thus Fox summarized what was most compelling about this show—that we resurrect with language what we bury of ourselves. In the pit he saw letters like skeletons whose black arms are raised as monuments to thought, or like the flapping wings of retreating crows. As Smithson observed, “Poetry is always a dying language, but never a dead language.” In the desert, words are the only monuments.

Jeff Kelley