Out of Office: Southern California
“In a state where the weather never changes, the people do the changing,” noted SPACES founder Seymour Rosen on the cover of his 1979 book In Celebration of Ourselves. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Southern California is home to such an incredible array of art environments – several of which I had the pleasure of visiting earlier this spring.
The first day-and-a-half of our very art-focused trip was spent hustling between museums. First up was the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Whatever you’re expecting – it’s not that, and I shall say no more! Put it on the top of your list. Pro-tip: hit up the In-N-Out next door for the perfect L.A. welcome meal. The Broad (Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away is sort of an environment, right?), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, were next up. All wonderful – especially the William Kentridge survey In Praise of Shadows presented at The Broad.
Our second full day was dedicated to the primary motivation for the trip – Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain. Our homebase for the desert portion of our visit was in Joshua Tree, about two hours north of the Mountain. We left our Airbnb in the morning and enjoyed the drive – especially meandering along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Salvation Mountain, Inc., board members Lynne Bright and Bob Simms and curator/caretaker Ron Malinowski met us on site and shared the latest news. While the Mountain itself is currently stunningly vibrant, a few prominent areas of the site have degraded since my last visit in 2020, and the Museum unfortunately remains closed to visitors. However, the board is hopeful that they will be able to restore the damaged areas and eventually reopen them to the public.
After a few hours on site, Lynne jumped in the car with us and we headed up the road to East Jesus, a collaborative and evolving art environment that was started by Charles Russell (1965–2011) after he relocated to the area to work with Knight in 2007. Each time I visit, the site is strikingly different as older pieces disintegrate and new pieces are installed. (This is part of the magic of repeat trips to all art environments.)
Lynne then generously facilitated a tour of Slab City (which directly abuts East Jesus), including stops at some of the community’s creative hotspots like the Phoenix Rising Gallery. Lynne lives part of the year in the Slabs in her camp called “The Grotto,” and with her company, we were able to navigate the community respectfully. (If you decide to check out the Slabs, please stick to areas that welcome visitors, and remember that these are people’s homes.)
On our tour, we came across Dot’s House of Dots – a new-to-me and in-progress art environment. The site winds through a maze of RVs and lean-tos and includes several distinct tableaus. Though she works in bright, whimsical colors – several of the installations lean into the macabre, including the Taxidermy Dinner Party featuring some well-dressed deer sharing a (literally) human meal and the Skeleterrarium. Dot also had some small objects for sale at the entrance to her site, including painted Salvation Mountain souvenirs.
Before heading back to L.A., we stopped at two more significant desert environments – The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art in Joshua Tree and Bob’s Crystal Cave in Yucca Valley. Both of these sites had been very high on my list for a long time, and both were incredible, in very different ways.
The Desert Art Museum was our first morning stop, and we arrived before any other visitors. Many environments benefit from return visits to witness the site’s evolution due to the artists at work. Though Noah passed away almost 20 years ago, it was clear that time spent with this site would reveal the work of Noah’s collaborator – the Mojave Desert. This visit was particularly special as the mountains that make up the site’s western backdrop were capped with white from the recent (and unusual) Southern California snowfall. [Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post featuring an interview with Joe Lewis, longtime president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.]
Our next stop was the Sky Valley Swap Meet in Yucca Valley, home of the late Bob Carr’s Crystal Cave. The swap meet is currently owned and operated by Bob’s family – his wife Elizabeth and daughter Zena. Though the swap meet is open weekends, the family very rarely opens the Crystal Cave to the public. Zena graciously facilitated our visit, and I am so grateful to her for letting us have this extremely special experience. We had already visited one infinity room on this trip, but Bob’s is something else. The small room is completely coated with craggy spray foam that’s been painted in shades of green. As you sit on a built-in bench, you look out into a seemingly infinite landscape replete with tiny trees and shrubs, sparkling geodes, and streams of water flowing down from the beyond into a clear blue pool. Though Bob is no longer around to welcome visitors, his work speaks loudly and clearly his message of “unexacerbated joy.”
After quickly touring the Sky Valley Swap Meet (an environment in itself), we took off west. On our trek, we ran into some old friends – the Cabazon Dinosaurs, still dressed in their Valentine’s Day outfits.
Our final environment stop was Cheri Pann and Gonzalo Duran’s Mosaic Tile House in Venice Beach. A true labor of love since the early 1990s, the entire home is covered inside and out with mosaicked tiles that are created, painted, broken, and affixed by the couple and their longtime assistant. The work is never done as even “finished” areas are sometimes taken down and reworked.
The beating heart of this collaborative project is Cheri and Gonzalo’s love for one another, evident not just in the dedication to their dreamy home, but also in the subject matter of their work – each other. While their discrete works manifest in different ways, each tells a story of their love for the other.
The Mosaic Tile House is a prime example of how meaningful it is to have the opportunity to visit artists within their environments. Seeing Cheri and Gonzalo interact with their work and each other is such an incredible treat.
We had the great pleasure of seeing many amazing art environments in Southern California, but there are still many out there to visit. Till next time!
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