"This work spans my month-long residency in a backcountry cabin in Joshua Tree National Park. It's a wild place, a far cry from my former home in Brooklyn, NY, and a vastly different context for living and making art. The landscape is incomprehensible; crumbling piles of precariously balanced boulders are scattered in spectacular disarray, the remains of ancient intrusions of molten granite. Here, my neighborhood is a forest of Joshua trees, a frozen army of misshapen figurines marching from the horizon in even formation. Everything is alien, and everything demands some sort of investigation.
"Without a plan, I begin my exploration of the park by making it my studio and my subject. Not generally much of a plein air painter, I am energized by the challenges of time, wind, light, bugs. The investigation of the landscape is immediate and thoughtless--no preconceptions or goals, no aspect ratio planning, compositional sketching nor color mapping, no computers or studio lights; no past and no future. This is all I do my first week, a sort of artistic nesting as I begin to wrap my mind around the place.
"The heat of the desert is unbearable at noon. There are few places to hide, even in the shade, so that's one good reason to go poking around an open mine shaft. It's a tunneled granite air conditioner, like walking into a hotel lobby in Manhattan in August, but possibly with rattlesnakes at the concierge desk. Groups of mines are scattered about the park, their tailings spilling down otherwise pristine mountainsides, their dangers adding intrigue and a touch of humanity to the natural spectacle of the wilderness. I map out the major mine groups and ruins in the park and set out with map and compass to investigate.
"History thus begins to insert itself into my experience of the park. It becomes impossible to walk a trail without noticing the carefully laid (if now crumbling) retaining wall on the downward slope, without appreciating the handiwork of the miners who built these roads a century ago. The remains of their efforts and ambitions become my primary concern. They've inadvertently left time capsules everywhere: a hut built among three boulders, complete with fireplace and chimney, juniper boughs supporting a domed roof of flattened tin cans; a stamp mill once used to crush gold ore, its machinery a rusting Rube Goldberg device baking in the desert sun; an exploded house replete with mattress springs, its wooden shards overgrown by wildflowers. These places are remote and hard to reach; the reward of finding them is satisfaction enough for a day. They are aberrations to the naturalist bent, oddly recent in the context of this park’s geologic timetable. Most of the mines were still operational in the 20th century, though one would hardly know it from the look of what remains.
"I don't paint these ruins as they appear, for they are puzzles to be worked through. I have with me a bunch of old windows; their rippling glass surfaces seem appropriate in light of the weathered ruins I've seen. Working front and back, inside and out, and cutting away as well as adding paint is an entirely new approach, but it fits the whole experience of not-knowing, of exploring. Painting on the far side of the glass is like making a sand painting; the surface is the bottom layer, not the top. Holes in the paint film create layers, like a stack of Swiss cheese, some serving as reflective varnishes, some becoming windows all the way through to the wall behind. Sculptural as well as painterly, the process is potentially endless--new layers can be added and subtracted ad infinitum on both sides of the transparent surface. A week goes by and polymer shavings pile up on the studio floor.
"One day I drive south to find the Hexie Mine group, a large set of crumbling tunnels and freestanding ruins in the southern half of the park. Crouching at the side of the road are a couple of visitors, RV idling, Indiana license plates. They wear safari hats, leashed sunglasses and khaki pants, and are engrossed by the sight of a lizard perched on a rock. Later the same day, I will come across a pair of gear-laden German climbers in the backcountry, miles from any road or trail. We stop and chat, ducking as a swarm of bees passes overhead. We are all here for some reason, but being here may give us something else entirely. I am a painter, but here I am an amateur botanist, a geology enthusiast, a recreational Gold Rush historian. The richness of this experience fills my soul, a foil to the urban chaos of the rest of my life. The month ends just as I begin to feel comfortable with my new environment and process. I leave without wanting to, the paintings still wet, the gift of time and space still too fresh to comfortably let go."
Artist-In-Residence, Joshua Tree National Park
Written: April 14-May 12, 2010