‘Desert X’ Plants Richard Prince and Other Artists in the Middle of Nowhere

Phillip K Smith III

If you’ve ever been out to the California desert for a sound bath at the Integratron, you know it’s filled with wacky art: at the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum you can see a tower of toilet bowls and other wacky installations that Noah Purifoy– an “outsider” artist in the literal sense of the word– installed in the middle of nowhere over the course of 15 years. The 10 acres that were his canvas resemble a demented, decaying miniature golf course, or a Burning Man camp from years ago that never got burned.

Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum.

Now, the desert has become even more of an open-air gallery, with the launch of Desert X. We’ll call it a “dry-ennial,” directed this year by globetrotting New York curator Neville Wakefield. Could it become the Coachella of the art world? Or at least a decent Basel-like excuse to escape winter in NYC for a few days? (After all, it was happening within spitting distance of Modernism Week in Palm Springs and the Art Book Fair in Los Angeles.) It’s too early to tell, but the first installment of Desert X– featuring 16 works spread over a drive of about 40 miles– was definitely a good excuse for a road trip across the Coachella Valley.

Richard Prince.

In the sleepy mineral-baths town of Desert Hot Springs, Richard Prince took over an abandoned home and plastered the walls with his “family tweets,” proving that he hasn’t been deterred by lawsuits regarding his appropriation of images (the latest involves a photo of Kim Gordon). Prince describes “Third House” as “the House where my family used to live and are now having a reunion,” but anyone who’s familiar with the “Andy Warhol of Instagram” knows this is bullshit: Prince actually grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts, and he’d be in prison if his family was as depraved as the captions for his “found” (or stolen, if you prefer) photos imply.

Richard Prince.

In printed-out tweets of these photos, he describes his family as “fucking tattooed nudniks; hair lip hillbilly’s [sic].” References to drugs and incest abound: A photo showing a nude threesome is described as “”My father My mother and my sister. We were all fucked up. Given up on shrinking it out. Doped up my art tho.” Most of the photos seem to have been taken in the ’60s or ’70s, and Price’s mockery of free-lovin’, acid-dropping hippies is just as snide as Raymond Pettibon’s. The tumbleweed setting gives new meaning to “dry humor.”

“Third House” is a continuation of Prince’s 1993 work, “First House,” in which he took over an LA bungalow. Here, the space resembles less an active home and more the scene of a sex cult raid. Garbage and damp clothing litters the lawn and the partly demolished hacienda. Graffiti reading PLEASE DON’T KILL ME is sprayed on the walls. The installation seems slapdash: Some of the Inkjet printouts are just lying on the ground, torn up and held down by rocks. They’re just begging to be stolen. Cardboard boxes (presumably the packaging that the images arrived in) are thrown into a pile one decrepit, mold-ridden room.

Less improvised is Lita Albuquerque’s “hEARTH,” a resin cast of a woman lying on a bed of marble dust in the garden of Sunnylands, the former estate of the Anenberg family and a longtime presidential retreat in Rancho Mirage. (Desert X is the pet project of Susan Davis, the editorial director of the Anenberg Retreat.) The Santa Monica-based artist’s electric-blue figure resembles a member of Blue Woman Group napping after a particularly strenuous drumbone session, but she’s described by the artist as a “25th-Century Female Astronaut”– a sort of woman who fell to earth.

The theme of space exploration is appropriate here, since Sunnylands isn’t that far from Giant Rock, a massive boulder that was once a magnet for UFO believers. The desert terrain can, of course, feel downright otherworldly, and these pieces seemed well-timed with the recent discovery of seven new planets.

Phillip K Smith III.

Phillip K Smith III’s “The Circle of Land and Sky” also has the vibe of an intergalactic intervention. Giant reflective beams spiked into the sand form a circle that resembles a sort of modernist Stonehenge. As one walks around it, the sand, sky, and oneself are reflected and multiplied in myriad ways, turning the desert’s flat expanse into a sort of funhouse.

While crisp blue skies made the desert a perfect canvas for Smith’s work (the artist is no stranger to this area), the landscape proved harder to tame for Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino. In Indio, Kaino had installed a hole in an abandoned shed. “Hollow Earth” was mirrored and lit to create the illusion of an infinite tunnel, but on late Saturday afternoon the humidity had caused it to fog up, and visitors were told that a dehumidifier was on its way.

Here’s how it looked earlier in the day:

Without doubt the most striking and immersive work of Desert x Artists was Tavares Strachan’s “I Am,” a sprawling field consisting of dozens of geometric holes dug into the ground and lit with neon. With no lighting from above, the sandy-feeling ground was pitch black except for what looked like radioactive craters. For one of Strachan’s better known works, the New York artist embarked on cosmonaut training in Russia; in this instance, the viewer, immersed in otherworldly silence, feels like an astronaut exploring the foreign terrain of a dark star.

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