Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Out West: Water and the Desert at the Palm Springs Art Museum

William Allan, Sanger Ranch, Wyoming Pond, 1997, oil on canvas,
gift of Neal Schenet (c) William Allan
"Especially in the desert, where it is scarce, water is even more vital for survival than in places where it exists in abundance. Its very lack defines the desert, and yet even that ecological system could not exist without it."

An excerpt from the statement to Reflections on Water at the Palm Springs Museum in California reflects one of the primary purposes of this succinct show of thoughtfully-selected art. Through works in many media—painting, photography, pottery, basketry, print-making and video—a single gallery provides the viewer with many evocations of water's meaning to humans in a region where it is a very precious element  The Northeast coast has been the subject for landscape and nautical painters; we know New England waters well as scene and fury. But this show asks us to consider water as a biology and ecology—as life or death, as time or extinction. Water in desert art is not only aesthetic, but urgent with prayer and reverence, and with arresting imagery of the world that wastes it.

William Allan's painting, "Wyoming Pond" is a touchstone. The shimmering reflections of greenery on still water, the implied coolness, and the sense of enduring peace all speak directly to deep human longings. The sight, sound, and scent of gently moving water are universally reassuring. Given our biological need, our psychological and emotional cravings for the sights and sounds of water, this painting is an idyllic point of departure. 


Stanley W. Galli, Vaquero Time for Talk, 1977, acrylic on linen,
gift of the artist 
This Romantic view of waters calm beneficence can be seen throughout  Reflections on Water. Water provides the setting for spiritual reflection and for unity with nature that washes cares away.

Whether or not Stanley Galli's 1977 painting of Mexican cowboys at a watering hole is supported by historically accurate pictorial details, he uses still water and morning light to add convincing piquancy to this moment of quiet camaraderie. The dust and lather of the vaqueros' work is implied by the cool and peacefulness of the pool where the horses drink.


Among the large selection of photographs in the show, there are several Romantic portraits that present Native Americans in sepia-toned paradise where they were One With Nature.This Edward S. Curtis image of a Native woman gathering water is particularly beguiling. The contrast between the barren land and the flowing water divides the picture, with the plump, musing woman sits in the middle, turned toward the burnished stream. The symbols and the composition are simple; the tone is warm; any possible menace nature could hold is swept away on the current. The woman is safe even if she is alone: the water is not only what she is gathers, but what she worships too from her prayerful position on the bank.
Edward S. Curtis, Getting Water - Havasupai, Plate 75 (from The North American Indian), 1903, photogravure on tissue,
 gift of Mrs. Ray Ingram 



The nostalgic scenes of peace, plenty, and unity with nature tend to involve individuals, not larger social groups. Mankind—contemporary, non-Native Mankind—this show suggests, doesn't go down to the river to pray. Rather, as a collective, people despoil what is precious, beautiful, and necessary in short-sighted pursuit of pleasures, or as the result of insufficient technologies.

Several beautiful and chilling photographs of the Salton Sea demonstrate the grief of despoiled waters. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, located in a basin that has been, over geological time, sometimes desert and sometimes filled with water. In the early twentieth century it became a thirty-five-mile long lake, due to engineering mistakes that allowed water from the Colorado River to overflow irrigation channels and run off into the land below sea level. The Salton Sea was subsequently developed into a popular get-away for fishing, boating and recreation. Insufficient drainage beyond evaporation, and the agricultural run-off that fills it with chemicals have ruined it. The salination has risen to extreme levels, the pleasure sites are long-since abandoned, [Richard Misrach, Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea, 1983, chromogenic print, museum purchase with funds derived from a previous gift from Kirk and Anne Douglas (c) Richard Misrach], and the lake reeks of dead fish rotting in water that sustains neither biological nor spiritual life.

Photographer, David Maisel's disturbing and disorienting, "The Lake Project 22," is from a series on the environmental effects of immense water-diversion projects in the West. [David Maisel, The Lake Project 22 (from the series , 2002, chromogenic print, gift of Joe and Pamela Bonino (c) David Maisel].  The image is in itself beautiful—the reds with touches of blue; the idea of a blood vessel running through what otherwise appear to be roots, sand, and other features of landscape. The mixture of colors and textures and colors is puzzling, but when connected to the word "Lake, then the weirdly beautiful becomes beautifully terrible—the sinister site of a calamity or killing that we didn't expect to find in nature. Do we see this from a distance, or close up? Either way, we hesitate to know. 

Reflections in Water is rich in Native American art and artifacts. This is happily to be expected as the Palm Springs Museum is rich in holdings of the American West and its cultures. [Installation photo by author.] In several examples of Native art I saw acceptance of the enduring facts of desert life that lacked the cycle of aspirational technologies and eventual despoliation resulting from Eurocentric attempts to modify and control nature.

Most of the Native American artworks in the show are contemporary, though to the untutored they appear to be from the nineteenth century or earlier. Aren't clay pots always found at archaeological sites? Weren't Navajo rugs made for White trading posts that grew up along the train routes, using the materials East Coast merchants imported for them to deploy?
(See "Navajo Weaving at the Palm Springs Art Museum"). The Native American traditions are strong enough to insure looks as timeless as the concepts they embody. Rather than coping with the calamitous results of    human engineering that gives out in unforeseen ways, they invoke the rain-making gods. While the latter seems risibly innocent to technological civilization, to those who practice it, it must have the advantage of avoiding large-scale evil outcomes.

I was impressed by the scale of the Native American artifacts. The vessels for collection of water at a source were small bottles and jugs, all decorated with symbolic art and fashioned of the natural materials available on the land occupied by the tribe. In the vitrine pictured below, a ceramic water bottle stands in the foreground. To its left is a large basket, the magnificent "Rain Eagle Basket," with its interior decorated with two mirrored eagles, wings unfurled. It's made of sumac, juncos, and deer grass, and its function also is water collection.

A Native weaving [Navajo Crystal Storm Rug, ca. 1940] and hanging sculpture that incorporates symbols from a variety of tribes [by non-Native O.E.L. Graves, 1960] demonstrate the symbolic and spiritual communion with Nature, which stand in contrast with the urge to end it to the ends of human engineering. 

The rug pattern symbolizes the home in the center, with lightening bolts emanating to four mountains that define the ends of Navajo territory. Red water beetles swim on the vertical ends, between the mountains. The point of the tableau is not an invocation but a reminder of the importance of rain and the power of the storm. Whether water is present or not, it appears pictured as an ever-present force in daily life.

Graves's sculpture is an homage to the tradition of rain dancing, using such symbols as corn in one hand (a drought-resistant staple crop) and cat-tails in the other, as a symbol of wetlands. Native Americans have husbanded water efficiently with hand-dug irrigation systems, and celebrated rains with dances greater than sighs of relief.

In this piece I have constructed one of many narratives possible in this excellent show. I think that any way one puts the experience together, though, it has to be as art about desert ecology and the use of its resources. I found interesting and inspiring such an unforced and beautiful show that brings science and environmental issues to the forefront. Reflections of Water was chosen by Daniell Cornell, the Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr., Director of Art and Curator, Christine Giles, whom I thank for such thoughtful planning and choices.

Reflections on Water remains open through May 1, 2016 at the Palm Springs Art Museum







(The author regrets that Blogger seems to have given out toward the end of this article, disallowing the movement of images and the removal of duplicates….)

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