by steven biller & deborah ross
Jan 2013

Palm Springs & the High Desert: It's a Dry Heat

N34 12.328'W116 01.391B
(from the series, "Isolated Houses," 1995-98)
John Divola
Archival Inkjet print
19" x 19"
Photo: copyright: John Divola, courtesy Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica

Stefanie Schneider calls out for Lucy, one of her cats, who followed her outside her Morongo Valley house, down a hill to her studio (a shipping container with a room addition and a patio) and around the 2.5-acre property on a dirt road where she docks several trailer homes in varying states of condition--from disrepair to comfy, authentic Americana guest quarters. The 1950s trailer with the white picket fence was the backdrop of a series of photographs Schneider shot on expired Polaroid stock and parlayed into a feature film that screened at Light Assembly Miami Beach, held in early December during the Miami art fairs.

"I dreamt of this for so long," she says, gazing into the vast High Desert. "You can't do this in Los Angeles. You can't afford this kind of life anyplace else. Here, you buy your freedom."

She seems to have all the space in the world, but she's hardly alone. The area, and particularly Joshua Tree, has gained a greater profile since Andrea Zittel launched A-Z West ("An Institute for Investigative Living") and High Desert Test Sites here more than a decade ago. But in fact, artists have sought the desert's wide-open expanses for almost 150 years.

If the High Desert--which also includes Twentynine Palms and Wonder Valley--looks exotic today, it might as well have been the surface of Mars in the 1870s, when the Southern Pacific laid rails near Palm Springs and ushered in illustrators who would depict the desert in drawings used to entice others to travel to the area. By the 1920s, American and European Impressionist painters who had plied their trade on the East Coast would discover fresh sources of inspiration, a healthier climate and a freedom that shaped a regional style reflective of the distinctive light and shadows on the desert landscape.

"Of all the regional schools [of Impressionism], California--especially Southern California--was richest in quality artists and works," says William H. Gerdts, professor of art history at the Graduate School of City University of New York. "The earlier painters back in the Northeast usually chose intimate landscapes--often their own home environment--rather than the expansive landscapes of the West Coast. And then there is a difference in the light of Northern France, the light of New England, and the light of Southern California, which affects the work of the landscape painters."

The French Impressionist John Frost, the subject of a forthcoming book from the Irvine Museum, was one of the first to come to Palm Springs, according to Thom Gianetto of Edenhurst Gallery in Laguna Beach. "Frost was determined to find French beauty in the dry, arid no man's land," he says. Other significant early artists who painted from Palm Springs to Indian Wells to the Salton Sea included Alson Skinner Clark, Charles Fries, Jimmy Swinnerton and Paul Grimm, who painted Hollywood movie sets before building his desert ranch house in 1935.

By the time the High and Low deserts came into their own as subjects for artists, modernism had begun to eclipse impressionism as the favored style of the day. One artist who adapted with great success was Agnes Pelton, of Cathedral City, who turned from classic landscapes to transcendental modernist paintings.

Today, the desert holds the same surface appeal it did 100 years ago, but it also has become a place to study, experiment and reflect. It should come as no surprise that the Santa Barbara-based University of California Institute for Research in the Arts and UC Riverside have created a immersion experience for the UC system's MFA candidates, who propose and turn out smart, site-specific works about the desert's natural, social and cultural landscapes.

High Desert: Broken Dreams, New Promises
The spirit of freedom that drew early painters to the desert continues to attract artists from Los Angeles to Europe. Zittel, Schneider and Thom Merrick, as well as long-timers Jack Pierson, Ed Ruscha, Peter Alexander and scores of others, seek the same open space, incomparable light and inviting environment for oddballs, rebels and free spirits.

In the early 1990s, Ruscha, who owns a place in Pioneertown (a former movie set known today for its music scene at Pappy & Harriet's), donated five acres to Noah Purifoy, who made large-scale assemblages using wreckage from the 1965 Watts riots and detritus from around the High Desert. Purifoy died in 2004, but the artwork remains a monument to broken dreams--a spectacle in a space that would be cost prohibitive in Los Angeles.

Photographer John Divola, who lives in Riverside, immortalized the Isolated Houses--decaying jackrabbit homestead properties--in the 1990s and spun off other series such as Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert and Collapsed Structures.

Those tiny dwellings in Wonder Valley and Twentynine Palms inspired the sleek, collapsible living units Zittel made for A-Z West, where she formed an intellectual and creative environment for contemporary art and design. She is also a co-founder and organizer of High Desert Test Sites, which invites artists from near and far to propose and install at site-specific works. One weekend every year, art people--curators, collectors, dealers, journalists and enthusiasts--converge on Joshua Tree and follow a map to the various test sites.

Other artists use the High Desert as an open-air studio. For example, Julian Hoeber of Los Angeles came here in 2008 to pump bullets into molds of his own head that he cast in bronze and polished for a show at Blum & Poe. "I love going out there," says Hoeber, bemoaning the fact he had no place in Los Angeles to shoot a rifle at his art. "There's no compression, no crowding. It's depressurizing. You have conversations you couldn't have in the city."

Jesse Reding Fleming, another Los Angeles artist, parlayed his month-long residency in Joshua Tree National Park in 2009 into a 14-minute film and a series of photographs encapsulating his sensory perceptions of the wild. His long shots of the landscape, close-up views of plants, and jarring moments when vehicles interrupted the sound and scenery unfolded at The Company (now Anat Ebgi) in downtown Los Angeles.

In "Somewhere on a Desert Highway," a 2010 group show at JK Gallery in Culver City, Jeff Lipschutz, art professor at University of Wisconsin, showed a painting that traces to his childhood in Eagle Mountain, a tiny mining community in a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert where his father was the only doctor. In his artist statement, the former Palm Springs resident describes "mountains exploding outside my schoolroom windows each day, and slag heaps oozing from mountaintops like alien growths." His paintings reflect "the ideas of entropic and apocalyptic landscape narratives... its antediluvian beginnings, science-fiction futures and contradictory presents."

The Salton Sea: The Dark Side of Paradise
Another slice of the desert that has captured artists' curiosity and imagination is the Salton Sea, the largest body of water in California. In its heyday, the sea was a popular recreation spot and favorite destination of Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and other celebrities who sought fun in the sun.

Expedition artists who accompanied railroad surveys in the 1850s were first (after the Native Americans) to depict the sea. Then Impressionist painters captured its light. Some, including Fred Grayson Sayre, saw paradise in "the Turquoise Sea," inspiring collector Allan Seymour to buy a home in North Shore, where the great Western artist Maynard Dixon lived in a shack and hosted other painters, including Jimmy Swinnerton, Clyde Forsythe and Carl Bray.

Storm floods eventually destroyed the yacht clubs and submerged the dwellings and businesses along the shore. The sea has since become an environmental disaster with its agriculture runoff, high salinity, and fish die-offs. The neglect of the sea has given artists plenty of ammunition.

Nicole Antebi's 2007 video Tilapia Jetty riffs on Robert Smithson's iconic Spiral Jetty. Her camera pans the depressed residential areas around the sea and concludes with footage of a small jetty she constructed with cardboard and dead tilapia. As it washes away on the shore, observers connect Smithson's monument to slow and gradual disintegration.

In 2011, the restored Albert Frey-designed North Shore Yacht Club hosted "Valley of the Ancient Lake," a group show curated by realist painter Deborah Martin, which included Impressionist-style paintings by Mary-Austin Klein and Eric Merrell; pastel drawings by Andrew Dickson; photographs by Christopher Landis, Kim Stringfellow and Bill Leigh Brewer; and conceptualist works by interventionist multimedia artist Cristopher Cichocki.

Palm Springs: Modernism Prevails
Not all desert art begins and ends with the landscape. In Palm Springs, midcentury modern architecture and design drives innovation in contemporary art. Jim Isermann, for example, infuses his work with modernist sensibilities, using simple shapes and bold color. Isermann, who lives in a classic Donald Wexler pre-fab Steel House in Palm Springs, has parlayed his aesthetic not only into paintings shown in Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris, but also into high-profile commissioned facades, including the Metro Customer Center and LA Eyeworks in Los Angeles, and interior installations at Princeton University in New Jersey and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Design-inspired art has momentum in the Palm Springs area, with artists taking cues from geometric abstraction--think John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley--and adding a healthy dose of technology and nontraditional materials. Indio-based Phillip K. Smith creates colorful, dynamic public sculpture as bright and optimistic as the desert itself. And although his work is abstract, his reverence for the landscape surfaces in his thought process.

"The desert can offer a gradient of experiences--manmade moments that are uniquely odd, beautiful, broken and exquisite and a flurry of natural phenomenon that are pure, overwhelming, bold, subtle and highly memorable," Smith says. "It's the color of the sky at the end of the day, the quiet of a canyon, and that odd decomposing shack in the middle of nowhere with dusty pots still on the stove. These are the true elements of the desert, sometimes not so far beyond the well-manicured lawns and pristine homes. The desert is an immersive, sublime environment that, like the horizon of the ocean, provides a clean slate for thought and invention. There is a deep sense of a universal human spirit here--of connecting with something that is bigger than one's self.  Stepping out into the extreme and the unknown and the beauty of the desert has inspired people for many years."

Regardless of where the desert-based artists put their studio--a house with cats running around in Morongo Valley or a high-tech office in Indio--they almost instinctively create works that feel indigenous and hold rich narratives that reveal the essence of the area.

Meet five desert-based artists whose work has gone global

White Trash Beautiful
Stefanie Schneider
49" x 49"
Edition 5/5

A narrow dirt road winds up to Stefanie Schneider's compound in Morongo Valley--where a "Private Property" sign hangs on a chain stretching on posts about 15 feet apart in wide-open desert. This is the German artist's Shangri-La, her dream come true. "People don't believe in dreams in Germany," says Schneider, who has lived in California on and off for about a decade and settled in this High Desert community in 2007. "No one knows this place. It's not like Joshua Tree," which lures adventurers and beauty-seekers from around the world.

Morongo Valley, a town of fewer than 4,000 people on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, offers plenty of space and inspiration for Schneider, who thrives in the extreme elements and takes advantage of the amenities. "The desert has a specific light," she says. "It's so bright and brilliant for my photography. It's just perfect. I also love the quiet and space to think," she continues. "I'm free. There are not a lot of people around. I can concentrate."

And produce--in abundance. Schneider's house is situated atop a hill overlooking her studio and several 1950s trailers--one of which she uses as a guest room, as well as a set for surreal photography and trippy filmmaking. Using thousands of photographs shot on expired Polaroid stock, Schneider stitched a fantastical narrative that she recently parlayed into a film, "The Girl Behind the White Picket Fence," which screened at Light Assembly Miami Beach amid the constellation of art fairs in December. Her desert neighbor, actor Udo Kier ("Fall Down Dead," "Fear dot Com," "My Own Private Idaho"), appears in the film as a shaman.

Schneider, who shows her photography at Scott White Contemporary in San Diego, made her debut at Christian Hohmann Fine Art in December at the Palm Desert gallery and its stand at Miami's Red Dot Art Fair.

The 5th of July
Thom Merrick
Oil on canvas
72" x 60"
Photo: courtesy the artist

Almost two hours east of Los Angeles and at least another hour north of Palm Springs--beyond Joshua Tree National Park and even the US Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms--Thom Merrick is painting large abstractions in desolate Wonder Valley. Merrick, who lived between New York and Europe for almost 20 years, found this largely abandoned outpost after photographer Jack Pierson, whom he saw in Chelsea in 2001, offered him the keys to his house and his truck here. "I realized it was a very special place and sought a permanent residence," he says. "I left for about a year to do exhibitions in Europe. It was a long year, and I noticed the desert had changed me."

Early in his career, Merrick exhibited drawings, paintings, sculpture, and installation works at American Fine Arts and Pat Hearn in New York and at Documenta IX (1992) in Kassel, Germany, and PS 1 Contemporary Art Center (1999) in New York. He had a solo exhibition at Sprengel Museum Hannover (1997) in Germany. For the past 10 years, the desert has grown integral to his work. "The paintings I make are made here," he says. "I don't import imagery. I don't use photography or a computer in my studio. I don't use electricity to make my paintings. It's by daylight only."

Merrick, who was included in the 2008 California Biennial at Orange County Museum of Art, now exhibits mostly with galleries in Zurich and Germany. He also participates in High Desert Test Sites. "I try not to leave [the desert] and make excuses not to leave," he says. "If I have to leave, it's for the shortest time possible. Most people think they know the desert if they have been there, but I had to spend a lot of time, continuous time in the desert to feel its magic, its gravity, its continuity."

For painting, he says, the light is superior. "I like the day and night repetition. It is a place you have to use your imagination because there's less to push back against or react to. I look at the granite cliffs by my studio and see the erosion, the dark patina of ancient time on the older rock. There are large boulders strewn about at the bottom of the slope. Broken off the rocks, still even older rocks, fractures, segments, course rubble--in effect the content of a hillside, but now vanished, leveled. It's getting ready to become sand, later dust, then wind, a colored sky. For me, it relates to painting."

Untitled (Tilfords)
Jim Iserman
459 powder coated aluminum panels and steel uni-strut
20" x 20" x 3" each panel, overall approximately 14" x 125'
Photo: courtesy LA Metro

Moving seamlessly between art and design, Jim Isermann enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Palm Springs, drawing from its bright midcentury sensibilities and imaging innovative ways to express its spirit and aesthetics. Isermann, who lives in a 1962 Donald Wexler-designed prefabricated steel house with a collection of 1950s and '60s furniture, was reaching back into West Coast modernism long before the Palm Springs architecture and design renaissance made it cool again. His early work was mostly abstract, sometimes functional and always handmade with minimalist simplicity, Bauhaus craftsmanship and utility, and Pop Art's mass-production ethos.

Colorful and sometimes-futuristic precision patterns and algorithmic arrangements permeate his labor-intensive work in a variety of media--from vinyl decals to paintings to vacuum-formed ABS plastic panels that comprise site-specific installations such as the facades of LA Eyeworks, SITE Santa Fe and a pedestrian ramp wall at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Isermann is among a group of artists--including Jorge Pardo, Andrea Zittel and Pae White--whose work boldly and unabashedly intersects with design. None of the artists has suffered for it. Isermann has a deep exhibition history with Corvi-Mora in London and Richard Telles Fine Art in Los Angeles. In the past few years, he has also signed on with Mary Boone in New York and Galerie Praz-Delavallade, the Paris dealer that dedicated its 2010 Art Basel Miami Beach booth to his meticulous, hard-edge paintings, furnishings and wall decals.

The installation was a reminder of his 1998-99 traveling retrospective, "Fifteen: Jim Isermann," and 2002 UCLA Hammer Museum exhibition. The retrospective showcased his mastery of many mediums, and the Hammer show punctuated the power of his algorithmically designed vinyl decals in mural-size scale.

Isermann, an art faculty member at UC Riverside, is active in the robust Palm Springs architecture, design and preservation community. In 2006, he installed a site-specific vacuum-formed styrene wall sculpture for Palm Springs Art Museum, where he was featured two years earlier in the "Trespassing: Houses x Artists" exhibition organized by Bellevue Art Museum in Washington that also traveled to MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles.

Abandoned Trailer, Bombay Beach, CA 2000
Kim Stringfellow
Lightjet Digital C-print
38" x 30 1/2"

Many artists depict the beleaguered Salton Sea as a post-apocalypse murk, a failure of environmental management and a mounting threat to the quality of life in the resort communities of Palm Springs. Their photographs and paintings--and even their interventions and performances--might exude a certain beauty and raise a measure of curiosity among people who see them, but they typically stop short of actually educating. Not so with artist Kim Stringfellow, who teaches photography and multimedia at San Diego State University--including a course called Art, Environment and Place. Stringfellow uses the field research strategies of scientists, the reporting techniques of journalists and the venues of traditional artists to tell an investigative and wildly visual story of the Salton Sea as well as the proliferation of abandoned jackrabbit homestead properties due north in the High Desert town of Wonder Valley.

Stringfellow's best-known image, Abandoned Trailer, Bombay Beach, CA 2000 which she included in a compelling exhibition at Michael Dawson Gallery, shows an oxidized, encrusted metal shell of a trailer sunken into a pool of liquid rust and salty grime. The orange-colored water, polluted by industrial and agricultural runoff, set against a hint of healthy green foliage and the clear blue sky underscores the catastrophe. The image also appears on the cover of her book, "Greetings From the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005."

Propelled by the photographs, the book chronicles the sea from its creation to its heyday as a resort destination to its disastrous life as an environmental boondoggle. She took a similar approach to her second book, "Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938-2008," which traces the midcentury rush on the land in and near Wonder Valley to its abandonment.

"The interest in the Western heritage and very romanticized image of the landscape was huge in the 1950s and into the '60s," Stringfellow explains in an interview for KCET's "Artbound." "People came out here with a romantic idea of what this was going to be like. And some of those communities are still established today. But a lot of these properties were left to just slowly degrade into the desert and melt back into this really desolate landscape."

Her images capture the rustic Bohemia that prevails in the area--a spirit of place that still holds an air of romance and an incredible sense of space where you can see for miles. The photographs in both series use the melancholic allure of the remains--submerged structures in the Salton Sea and derelict shacks on land with no electricity or water--to instigate renewed interest in the next course for these fragile landscapes.

Lozenge 3
Phillip K. Smith III
Acrylic, LED lighting
30" x 12 1/4" x 11"
Photo: courtesy Royale Projects, Palm Desert

LED lights pulsated with changing colors in Lozenge 1, a pill-shaped, interior-lit translucent acrylic wall sculpture that drew steady traffic at Royale Projects' booth at the inaugural Art Platform Los Angeles in September. It signaled the arrival of the gallery and one of its core artists, Phillip K. Smith III, whose aesthetic--which takes cues from minimalist geometry, Bauhaus rigidity and the possibilities of Light & Space--coexists with midcentury modern-obsessed Palm Springs, located about 30 miles west of his Indio studio.

"Every day, I find myself observing the desert--the light, the colors, the forms, the shadows, the scale--and how all of these elements change dramatically over the course of a single day," he says. "Aperture and the following series of LED-lit acrylic works [including Lozenge and Torus] could only have been conceived in the desert. The purity of geometry, gradient of change and the surface of shifting color are elements of my work that are desert light inspired and that can hold up within the scale and texture of the desert."

Smith was included in "Smooth Operations: Substance and Surface in Southern California Art," the inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster. And he has gained much attention in recent years for his large-scale public projects--including the 55-foot, glossy-red Fiberglas, steel and concrete "Inhale/Exhale" at University of La Verne and the mirror-polished and powder-coated steel "Where the Earth and the Sky Meet" in Oklahoma City. In the next 18 months, he'll install four large-scale public pieces in Palo Alto and Walnut Creek in northern California, as well Nashville, TN, and Arlington, VA.

"My architectural grounding helps in my public art installations," says Smith, who holds degrees in fine art and architecture from Rhode Island School of Design and worked for several Boston architecture firms. "Architecture school taught me two things: how to think through a problem, no matter what the discipline, and to embrace new technologies. CNC milling and cutting, 3-D modeling software, and Arduino coding are tools I use as readily as hand drawing in my studio."


deborah ross

Three Phoenix-based artists who have met with success over the years share a commitment to living and working in the extreme climate that is the Sonoran Desert. In fact, for all three, the arid landscape is integral to their work: an iconoclastic use of scenic photography, in the case of Mark Klett; remnants of desert life encased in resin, in the case of Mayme Kratz; and commentary on encroachment into the desert, in the earthworks of Matthew Moore. All three artists are represented in exhibitions associated with the Desert Initiative (DI:D1) this year: Klett and Kratz in "Desert Grasslands" at the Tucson Museum of Art and Moore in a collaborative installation on copper mining, set for the Arizona State University Art Museum.

Knot 271
Mayme Kratz
Resin, Arizona map and grass on panel
12" x 12"
Photo: courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery and Etherton Gallery

When Mayme Kratz works, that could mean a number of things. The mixed-media artist, who has resided in Arizona since 1986, likes to walk the trails in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and Superstition Mountains, which are visible from her studio just south of downtown. But on any hike, her eyes always wander to weeds, seeds, feathers, insect wings and other remnants that others might consider detritus. She scoops them into her sun hat or another container and, back in her studio, will examine her collection under a microscope to study colors, textures, forms and patterns. Quickly she envisions the reshaping of the materials into cast-resin wall pieces or columns. In a days-long process, she manipulates these revered objects from nature into precise patterns. Then she suits up with protective clothing and eyewear to apply at least a few coats of resin. Detail work with saws and sanders follows, until the pieces radiate an unexpected, ethereal beauty. Even the tiniest of objects reemerge as part of spirals, circles, crescents, ripples and more. As far as Kratz is concerned, desert flora and fauna hold limitless possibilities for reinterpretation in her works. The desert climate is key, as the dryness helps preserve objects, while the wide-open spaces offer more possibilities. Some of the more unusual items that have made their way into her studio include a bobcat's spine, wasp's gall, the mold of a brown pelican skull, rattlesnake ribs, and cactus blooms. It's possible to stare at her work and not grasp the materials she's used, as in a wall plaque bearing unrecognizable Mexican bird of paradise seeds, carefully compacted into a brown wreath, or when long shafts of wild grass turn into a thick mandala.

Part of Kratz's aesthetic comes from her training and residencies, which include an apprenticeship with James Hubbell and stints at the Pilchuck Glass School and The Museum of Glass, both in Washington. She has participated in solo and group exhibitions at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the Tucson Museum of Art, and the Phoenix Art Museum. The latter recently gave her a mid-career award and show.

Work is inseparable from her life, Kratz says, noting how ideas spring to life at unexpected times and in unexpected places. From a young age, she says, she felt "a sense of destiny" about pursuing the kind of art that she does, and the way in which she brings value to the infinite debris of the natural world can't help but convey a spiritual resonance.

And The Land Grew Quiet
Matthew Moore
Embossed paper, conveyors, ticker tape, pine, routed mdf, mixed media
5000 square foot installation at Phoenix Art Museum

On the one hand, Matthew Moore is a rising star in museum circles, creating large earthworks as well as mixed-media installations that raise questions about urban sprawl and sustainability. On he other hand, Moore is a fourth-generation farmer, and probably the last in his family to grow carrots and other crops on land just outside of Phoenix. He struggles between the two worlds, but in the meantime remains committed to living and working at Combine Studios, an affiliate of Arizona State University in downtown Phoenix. In addition, he has been tapped by ASU and Desert Initiative to curate "Feast on the Street," DI's culminating outdoor event in April 2013, in collaboration with British artist Clare Patey, the force behind the annual "Feast on the Bridge" in London. Moore, like Patey, is a vocal supporter of local food sourcing, and to further the cause, Moore has created the Digital Farm Collective, a nonprofit online hub for bringing together farmers and educators. That's not all: Moore and Patey are collaborating on "CU 29: Mining for You," a visual and tactile experience heightening awareness about copper--its origins, uses and expendability--in light of copper mining being one of Arizona's top industries. The show opens at the ASU Art Museum in February 2013.

Moore comes across as driven, earnest and intellectual, seeing himself as part of a "historical dialogue of displacement" in the conflict between agriculture and suburbia. His soul-searching led to "Rotations: Single-Family Residence" and "Rotations: Moore Estates," in which he hand-hoed and dug the floor plan of a home and, later, a one-third-scale representation of a tract-housing layout--the soon-to-be-developed fields on his land serving as the "canvas." The effort is preserved in aerial photographs and videos. A few years later, still bridging the worlds between art and agriculture, Moore was part of an Armory Center for the Arts show in Pasadena in which he created a site-specific sculpture that gave visitors their own vegetable seedlings. By 2012, the response was glowing to his one-man show at the Phoenix Art Museum. Called "And the Land Grew Quiet," it juxtaposed Dust Bowl-era photos and writings beside white walls embossed with housing development plans. Nearby, Moore erected the skeletal framework of a house seemingly sinking into the ground.

Altogether, his work speaks to tough questions about legacies, progress and culture. Even if Moore's future lies away from his native Arizona, his heart remains in the arable desert landscape that not only feeds his art but also represents his roots.

Site of a dangerous leap, now overgrown
Mark Klett
Pigment inkjet print
10 1/2" x 17 1/2" Edition of 25
Photo: courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery, Scottsdale

Mark Klett is fascinated with iconic landscapes and the passage of time--think scenes of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Sonoran Desert. And it's not just about the geological changes, but also the interventions of humans and the resulting record of survey maps, paintings and photographs. The way this esteemed Arizona photographer and former geologist sees it, however, our visions of scenic wonders could use a little more subjectivity and context. And so, for more than a decade, he and his collaborators have created "rephotographic panoramas"--digital ink prints sometimes as wide as 96 inches--that piece together new photographs with archival materials to construct fresh and thought-provoking scenes. For example, Klett's latest book, "Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe" (University of California Press), repurposes maps, postcards, lithographs and B&W photographs dating back to the 19th century and including works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Thomas Moran and others. Through precise placement of overlays and insets, the older works are embedded into Klett's digital photos.

"Rephotography" is a painstaking process that begins when Klett and his fellow travelers load camping gear, laptop computers and photography equipment into his faithful truck and spend days at a time in desert and mountain wildernesses, in effect retracing the steps of earlier painters and photographers. The aim is to find the same vantage points and lighting conditions, even weather conditions. Once back in his Tempe studio--which is within walking distance from his post as a photography professor at Arizona State University--Klett and his collaborators sift through their thousands of digital images and many archival materials. A large-format printer commands attention in the studio, and Klett leaves lots of floor, table and wall space for spreading out prints and maps and projecting images from a custom-made stereo viewer. His desert-hardy personality is evident in the array of sticks hanging vertically on the walls, each stick decorated with found objects from campsites during his various photographic forays.

An Arizonan since 1982, Klett began making a name for himself in art photography in the '90s and has since exhibited at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, the Phoenix Art Museum, the National Museum of American Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He is currently on a yearlong sabbatical, partially dedicated to a rephotography project studying historic photos by Eliot Porter and others, taken before Glen Canyon in Utah and Arizona was dammed and flooded to create Lake Powell--an issue that still raises environmental concerns.

Klett relishes the fact that his photographic works subvert the idea of pure landscape documentation and instead pose challenging questions about land use, cultures and human intervention over time. The earlier-day artists may be "unwilling collaborators," he says, but the hope is that his new statements somehow magnify those artists' original visions.


cherie louise turner

The high desert of Northern Nevada, where the big little city of Reno is located, sits just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Located nearby is the second largest alpine lake in the world, Lake Tahoe. This desert, its environment harsh and wind-whipped, provides a visual and audible quietude and clarity where the imagination can roam free--it notably encompasses the Black Rock Desert, home to Burning Man. It's a stage ripe for artistic exploration. Below are two of the many artists who have found such inspiration there.

Winter Light
Phyllis Shafer
Oil on panel
12" x 16"
Photo : Stremmel Gallery, Reno / Phyllis Shafer

Landscape painter Phyllis Shafer has long called South Lake Tahoe home, making the vast Carson Valley and desert beyond regular areas of exploration. Additionally, she has trained her brush on Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Shafer paints lyrical, graceful work, replete with heightened patterns and movement of the views she captures. The desert, says Shafter, "has the rhythms I'm looking for," as well as the space and the solitude to absorb the landscape, to become immersed in it. "I love the uninterrupted openness," she says. "And, there's also something surreal and strange about the desert." Shafter's saturated color and fluid lines relay the otherworldliness of the place, and bring to life what others may see as an empty wasteland. Her work will be the subject of two upcoming shows: at the Nevada Museum of Art in January 2014, and at Stremmel Gallery in Reno in October 2013.

Shafer points out that in Arizona, it is the cacti that catch her attention, particularly the saguaro. In her paintings of them, they seem like characters, animated and in conversation with the surrounding flora, sky, and hills. In Nevada, it's the ruggedness and low-lying plant life that she focuses on. Her big, whirling skies further add to the playfulness of the scenes. "For me, these paintings are a dance between what I see in nature and the process of translating it." It is a process Shafer enjoys taking her time with: "I love becoming intimately familiar with the nature I paint," she states, by way of explaining her penchant for capturing the views that immediately surround her. The landscape takes on an allegorical life; "it's a symbol of our journey through life, a self-reflection," she explains. "It's almost literary to me, symbolizing something internal."

The desert as a subject then becomes not just about seeing, but about revealing what is not immediately evident, the richness in an environment that doesn't readily give up its secrets, but where stories of life, hard fought and often hidden in the vastness, abound. "I love to peel away the layers of landscape," says Shafter. "And with the Nevada desert, I feel I've just begun to scratch the surface."

Umbrella and Black Rock
Peter Goin
4 x 5 color negative, pigment print on Hahnamuhle watercolor 350 gsm paper, 20" x 25"
Photo: courtesy of Peter Goin; image from the book,
Black Rock published by the University of Nevada Press in 2005

For Reno-based photographer Peter Goin, the surrounding Northern Nevada desert has long been a focus. Among other notable bodies of work on the subject are his photographs of the Black Rock Desert, published in the aptly named book "Black Rock." When asked why he photographs the desert, he simply replies, "The reasons are complex."

Immediately what Goin addresses when untangling the complexity of his interest in the desert is the inherent, unspoken spirituality of a place. He points out that one of the first questions one should ask oneself when addressing deserts is, why have most of the world's religions formed in arid, desert areas? "When you are in the desert," Goin notes, "you might be the only person for four hundred square miles; you tune into the distant sounds, the subtlety of the air movement." He continues, "Out on the Playa [the Black Rock], if you sit quietly enough, you can actually hear your heartbeat; you can hear your blood flow; you can hear the whine of your own electrical system." In short, the desert is a vehicle to getting in touch with ourselves while also getting in touch with our own insignificance. "There is a unique feeling of space and horizon. Our identity becomes where we are: we don't define it; it defines us."

Goin also addresses the art historical link to desert photography. "You can see the desert in minimalism, and even to a certain degree in Abstract Expressionism. Certainly in Rothko's paintings, whether he meant it or not, you can find the desert: the horizon line, the haziness." But, also, there is a definite dearth of images of Northern Nevada--a void that Goin is working hard to fill.

In regards to this pursuit of capturing the grandness, the vastness of this wide-open view, it is, he notes, a constant challenge. "It takes a lifetime of viewing," he says. There is the additional trouble of the harshness of the environment: it can at times be physically impossible to make photographs, most especially because of the wind, which fiercely tosses dust and sand. But for Goin, capturing this sacred place, a place linked to origin stories and where one is compelled to contemplate the very questions of existence, is a calling. "I don't own the land," states Goin. "The land owns me."


American Pop Art pioneer receives Lifetime Achievement Award at the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair

Fueled by a childhood fascination, Pop artist Mel Ramos is best known for his paintings of comic book heroes and sexually charged Americanized pin-up style nudes interacting with imagery drawn from a broad lexicon of popular culture. Ramos' unique approach to art, and his deep connection to the Pacific Coast, can be traced back to the sixties, when he utilized his
illustration skills in a graphite drawing depicting a shark attack in a situation where the top-most diver appears to be winning the battle against one of man's most feared enemies. Although their work differed greatly, California-bred Ramos was mentored by his comrade and fellow West Coast Pop artist Wayne Thiebaud. Other influences include Roy Lichtenstein; Andy Warhol; and his life long friend, Tom Wesselmann--an artist who is also known for the sensuality of his POP culture-derived work; as well as the renowned pin-up girl illustrator Alberto Vargas. Unlike Vargas, whose models were often set against ambiguous white back drops, Ramos' approach to the often erotic subject matter purposefully flirts with the kitsch, juxtaposing female nudes with oversized candy bars, soda bottles, and other often-edible products. The timing of his work contributed to the
rebirth of the idealized nude.

The famed artist, now 77, is widely considered one of the pioneers of the 1960s American Pop Movement. The spectrum of his career was recently the subject of a retrospective exhibition, titled Mel Ramos: 50 years of Superheroes, Nudes, and Other Pop Delights, at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Ramos will be the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will receive at the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair in February of 2013. Concurrently showing at the fair, Mel Ramos: Pop Icon "The First 50 Years" debuts at the fair February 14.

Mel Ramos' work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, among others.

To download a pdf of the 2013 DESERT PS SUPPLEMENT.pdf, please click here.

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