Sunday, November 17, 2013

Noah Purifoy's Outside: the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum

Noah Purifoy, Shelter. Joshua tree in foreground.
Noah Purifoy, interior of
My children have got me into most of life's great experiences and so it was once again that through my daughter's reconnoitering I visited Noah Purifoy's home and Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the Mojave Desert. We entered when the early morning shadows cast by the cactuses of greater Joshua Tree, California were still long on the sand. This collection opens very early in the morning. Empty parking spaces for five and six cars abut a neighbor's property across the unpaved road, and neither guards nor doors nor walls enforce the posted hours of operation. The Museum is just there: a circus, a shrine, a stunning collection of sculpture and installation existing as a fact of life, an integral part of the desert landscape demarcated only by an occasional barrier of inclusion. We enter the Purifoy site as we enter a theater and see the stage, with imaginations tingling. The only limits here are set by our own capacities to appreciate the unity of action set before us.

Noah Purifoy, Bowling Balls. One of
three bowling ball towers.
In 1989 Purifoy left Los Angeles, where he had been a founding member of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. He had gleaned rubble from the infamous race riots to use as sculptural materials, and he continued to use found materials for the rest of his career. He moved his practice to Joshua Tree, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. On his ten acres he created over a hundred works from discarded materials. 
Noah Purifoy. Possibly, Three Witches. It was hard
for me to keep up with titles as the map of the site is
schematic and nothing is labeled. But the interplay of
Art and Nature is wonderful and not unusual.

In popular imagination, people who retreat to the desert are saints, hermits, or kooks. Wise men go for spiritual discipline and reflection; monomaniacs discover that odd kingdoms await them there. These people re-enter society either as Jesus or as Brian David Mitchell, the prince of a two-person sect of child abductors. People who go to the desert are rarely like the rest of us.

The desert symbolizes circumstances of deprivation with no joy. But the power of symbols lies in their lack of specificity, so we don't imagine the desert in any detail, as a place with properties beyond absences. When we think of the lives of hermits and saints and outcasts, we don't envision the desert earth as nurturing flora and fauna; we don't think of the vistas, sunsets, or the subtle gardens at their feet. The actual, living desert inspires habits of alertness, observation, and awe. Its phenomena exist on a very broad scale—as vast as the endless sky, as minute as sand-dwelling insects built for survival.
Noah Purifoy. Rear, Ode to Frank Gehry. Foreground, Sixty-five Aluminum Trays.

When Purifoy moved to the desert, he must have been profoundly aware of both the symbolic and specific power of the place, for it's not only his genius as a sculptor that is so moving, but it's his genius as an artist in the fullest sense—his ability to see beyond what he has his hands on. On his property one encounters not only the many sculptures, but also the size of the space itself, the infinite sky, the continuous desert, and the cactuses that grow undisturbed among the many man-made phenomena. In his museum,  the visitor never loses consciousness of the environment and its components of sand, plants, sun, and sky. Purifoy clearly considered and built with those in mind. They unify the property and they unify his efforts across time. He uses cactuses to pull together groups of several sculptures, or, sometimes, he places artworks with a cactus as the focal point. Purifoy's use of his complex setting reveals the observational basis for his art that seems at first encounter marked by pure imagination.

Noah Purifoy, one car in the long train he built on the site

Purifoy's property is on the edge of a Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. His desert retreat was not obtained for the purposes of landscape painting; he seems not to have inspired other artists to follow or colonize around him. Whether he was visited by agents, gallerists, and curators, I do not know, but the site is so unified and concentrated that it's difficult to imagine anything obtruded on his focus there. The Foundation quotes Purifoy with saying, "I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be," words that reinforce the impression the Outdoor Museum conveys, that this work was made from inner compulsion, not for reasons of career.

The photograph (left) shows where Purifoy segregated his accumulated materials or, as any self-respecting neighbor would call it, his junk. Every scrap that appears in his constructions is used with self-conscious wit, grace, humor and punch. The space—as large and composed of hundreds of thousands of individual elements as it is—feels animated by the life stored in those myriad parts and activated by their use in artworks. Because it's clear that nothing is arbitrary in this world, the effect is musical. There are naturally-occuring vibrations, like sound-waves; particular harmonies generated by a place so perfectly and intuitively orchestrated. I've experienced nothing like this—visual unity of such a vast scale—outside of grand gardens, symmetrical in plan. 
Noah Purifoy, No Contest. The "building" is a facade.

It's unusual to find as little repetition in a body of work as one does in the Outdoor Museum. "Outsider" artists may   limit themselves throughout life to a single approach, material, or style. Contemporary academy-trained artists produce bodies of work, based on a career model of development that assumes ever more favorable judgment awaits their ever-changing work, where change equals improvement. 

In art—in every enterprise—the perception that one has succeeded is a great inducement to continue doing the same thing: Success is seductive, even when it's damaging to broader expression of creativity. But here, Purifoy has built buildings one can enter; he's constructed facades, earthworks, towers. There are abstract sculptures, simulacra, miniature environments; some works are busy and elaborated, and others are no more than the barest suggestions of form. There are works that focus attention on the environment, the church, or on art itself. It seems that nothing recurs.

Noah Purifoy, Sculpture made from the aluminum
tube frames of patio chairs, enhanced by shadows
Alone in the desert, though, liberated from the effects of outside judgment, what is there to short-circuit the exploratory impulse? I believe that this extraordinary place is testimony to the stifling effect that organized Art can have on the connection between creative impulse and individual production. Under the sun on the Mojave Desert, Purifoy would have experienced little daily commentary, opinion, or intrusion on his creative independence. Of course he could have built nothing but gates for fifteen years—anything is possible. But his setting seems to have given him the privacy to fill mental and spiritual as well as physical space and he did it in a broad and balanced way, without expressing any observable need for self-replication.
Noah Purifoy, detail of architectural
installation with ornamental and structural use
of toilets, reminiscent of classical columns

Again, the desert sun both reflects and shines like a spotlight on Purifoy's achievement. It seems to move with the viewer among the works on the site, calling attention to the uniqueness of each—to its relationship to its environment, its outstanding form, materials, and spirit.

Separate Purifoy from the art world; isolate him in the desert, away from the commerce of galleries, from separated and denominated museum rooms (Black, Contemporary, American, Twentieth-Century); remove him from having to hear, speak, or interpret Art's professional jargon—do all these things and you can come up with Purifoy as a genuine outsider artist. 

In Purifoy's personal garden adjacent to his trailer

The CV available on the Noah Purifoy Foundation site makes it evident that Purifoy did not at all fit the technical definition of an outsider: He had an art degree, many solo shows, prestigious fellowships and awards. But could these facts ever make an insider of an Alabama-born Black Angelino, whose mature period work is formed from the rubble of an infamous race riot? It seems to me that it's a very doubtful proposition. Socially and psychologically, there would be much to place him as an outsider.

But as an artist, Purifoy strikes me as an outsider in the best, most liberated, enviable sense. The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is a brilliant, unique place created only by an artist contented with own thoughts and imagination. He appears to have turned out his ideas with a patient spontaneity untarnished by vogues, criticism, or suggestions. The harmonious mixture of calm and excitement I felt there undoubtedly had to do with Purifoy's outsider perspective: He put himself beyond everything that is usual but extraneous to the central work of an artist, which should be observing, thinking about, and doing what is most important to him. How far out can you go? Here, Purifoy is, in every aspect of his work and life, a nonpareil—excellent and right.

This site is an inspiration to any artist in any medium. That this place is so suffused with its creator's values shows the excellence of stepping wholly away from organized art's—from society's—congested sphere of comparison. The desert is purifying and solitude is refining. It's hard for me to conclude otherwise after visiting this sacred place, Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. 
Panorama of Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Photo by Margaret Starr.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

For Instance Laura Bidwa

For Instance Me is the title of 
Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (green), 2012. Oil and acrylic
on panel, 11 x 15."
painter Laura Bidwa's current show in Room, an intimate gallery space at Columbus College of Art and Design. You'll have to sprint to see it by the time this review comes out (it closes on November 15), but your raised pulse will calm once you get there. Bidwa's work is contemplative, mysterious, and serene. A visit to this show is like looking into  the variety and nuance of one beautiful, thoughtful mind. The thirteen paintings arise from one visual premise yet they show great variety. There's no doubt that you stand in a unified, unique environment. You have the opportunity to explore its fascinating details, for within the given of a loosely gathered, pastel mass situated against a black background, each painting is wholly independent of its neighbors. It's one cast of mind with many kinds of thoughts.

Bidwa engages us with the figures—those irregular, translucent forms that sometimes drift, sometimes propel themselves across the black, sanded fields of her paintings—by means of suggestive titles. These never explain, declare, or pin down her subjects because ambiguity is their nature. 

Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (yellow, 1), 2012. Oil and acrylic on
panel, 11 x 15."

A big part of my pleasure in Bidwa's work is a sense of peace with undefined outcomes. Four of the thirteen paintings are Creature(s) I Don't Know. Well, I sure don't either! But there they are, whether or not I know or can define them. These paintings—with figures of various colors, densities, shapes, positions; placed against backgrounds of greater or lesser opacity—have quite a strong effect on me. They remind me of the frequency of my own "unknown," subliminal thoughts. Do they move across my consciousness like meteorites; like dust; like clouds? Are they fragments, or blind spots? Do I see the thoughts I don't focus on? Or do I simply neglect them? My ideas may have nothing at all to do with what Bidwa thought or sought to do. But the multivalence of art is one standard of its power. Considered this way, Bidwa's is explosive.
Laura Bidwa, Literally. Oil and acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

Bidwa is clearly not an automatic painter—she does not paint in a trance, nor give us what comes to her spontaneously. But it is part of her art to convey a sense of the momentary, yet to still it so we can seize upon the flashpoint of connection, when a word or a vision blinks across the mind, usually to be lost as it occurs. I cannot parse or explain her painting, Literally. But the invitation to connect the word, the concept, and the image can't be passed up. "Literally" makes us think of something accurate, real, and certain. What does it mean that the figure is suspended, has substance, and pleasing color? That the black background is rent, exposing a creamy beyond? Bidwa nudges us into alertness to quiet questions, and into a sense that they are all around us, breathing into the thin fabric of daily consciousness.

Laura Bidwa, That's the Way That It Ends, Oil and Acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

I particularly like the painting,That's the Way That It Ends, especially in its relationship to the others in the show. In this one, Bidwa has not sanded off any of the black paint. In fact, she has returned with it to partially paint over the colored figure. She has applied dots of color to the surface of many of her paintings in a way that feels almost light-hearted. When she does it here, their force is different because they bolster a sense of spatial depth. In all of the paintings one feels three dimensions, but in few do the layers of space seem to impinge on one another. Here they do, as the figure seems to be absorbed into the unbroken background. That's the Way That It Ends, folks. This image is unrelieved and heavy in contrast to its neighbors, adding an arresting change of mood and idea to the show.

For Instance Me is a masterful show. Bidwa does subtle and resonant work with a just a few, repeated visual elements. She is utterly confident in her process, materials, and the strength of her communication. She is also aware of the breadth and depth of her potential audience. Through her titles especially, she open doors to the mysterious paintings and encourages our minds to travel the ground she has traced.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ghost Stories: Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa's Tour of "Resurfaced" Japanese-American Internment Camps

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Leupp Isolation Center, Leupp, Arizona, 2011.
Archival inkjet print, approximately 8" x 10." Courtesy of the artist.
I'm a fan of documentary photography. I love reading the stories in the images, the more complex the better. So Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa's November show at the ROY G BIV Gallery in Columbus immediately struck me as something special. In Resurfacing, he presents both barren desert landscapes and urban landscapes uncannily desert-like, for none of them—vast as they are—include people. They are as remote, dry, and washed-out as the plains of sand and sagebrush devoid of habitation. How do we know these are not merely landscape shots? Because he has captioned them, and his captions both identify places and serve as titles to the stories that accompany them.

Kuroiwa's sites, so impersonal in appearance, are all related by what has been erased: the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps on these sites during the Second World War, and camp structures that held them.

Were it not for Kuroiwa's caption and the two-paragraph note that accompanies this photo, we wouldn't know that the image, left, is of the Leupp Isolation Center where "problem inmates" from other camps around the West were transported for discipline (read: torture) in rumored underground facilities. Lacking material evidence beyond these couple of disintegrating structures, how does collective memory last? How is history documented?

Jesse Ryan Kurroiwa, Golden Gate National Cemetery (Overlooking the Shops at
Tanforan), San Bruno, California),
2011. Archival inkjet print, approximately 18 x 23."
Courtesy of ROY G BIV Gallery.
The premise of this show is that physical evidence can indeed be blown away, knocked down, or resurfaced. In human cases, it can be silenced by violence or death. 

Kuroiwa's eerie view of the symmetrical, perfectly laid-out Golden Gate National Cemetery has a story fraught with invisible ironies. In it are interred the bodies of Japanese-American combat troops, men released from internment camps to fight in the War. The story he tells in the note to the images says that 14,000 such men fought, leaving their families behind in camps. Theirs was the most-decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the military. Yet the Tanforan mall, beyond, occupies the site of the former Tanforan Racetrack, were Japanese-Americans were lodged in horse stables on their ways to permanent camps.

All the internment camps were situated in barren countryside—desert or scrubland that would discourage escape attempts. One of the aspects of the invisible story, though, is that the camp populations were not bent on escape, but tended to established their own well-organized, coping societies in accordance with gaman, the Japanese discipline of acceptance and hard work, a turning inward rather than to aggression. That civilized characteristic, too, has been scrubbed out of history.

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Orchard, Manzanar Relocation Center [CA], 2011.
Archival inkjet print. Approximately 8 x 10." Courtesy of ROY G BIV Gallery.

The photographs in Resurfaced emphasize the sense of the missing by Kuroiwa's choice of points of view. These emphasize sky, distant horizon, or, in the Leupp photo, an upward leading line to a eternal vacancy, away from the ground under which men were tortured.

Kuroiwa's show wholly depends on the interplay of image and text. I took in the hazy, haunting photographs, which left me feeling a little disturbed, with more questions than answers about their significance. Turning to the texts provided shocks: The stories are always grim or heart-rending. They sent me directly back to the photographs, which were instantly filled with the stories that had been invisible before. The haze was still there, but the ghosts had souls; the sand was marked with footprints of women and children who planted gardens in spite of everything.  

The quality of the texts is as important as the elegance of the photography in a project like this. These two skills do not always coexist in visual artists, but Kuroiwa does well in most cases, maintaining a lapidary style that fits his purpose of documenting history in which he has investments of moral value and emotion.
Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Tula Lake Segretation Center, Newell, California, 2011.
Archival inkjet print. Approximately 8 x 10." Courtesy of ROY G BIG Gallery

Of the "Tula Lake Segregation Center," right, he writes:
"On May 24th, 1944, Shoichi James Okamoto was shot and killed on this site. Okamoto had been sent outside this camp to retrieve lumber by a construction supervisor. At the time of the shooting, Okamoto was attempting to re-renter the relocation center. The guard who shot Okamoto was later acquitted except for a $1.00 fine for unauthorized use of government property—the bullet."

Well done. It's a description brief and unadorned, as spare and cold as the image presented. He doesn't tell us about the weather: He lets our imaginations worry over the particulars; we inhabit both the photographed and unseen space. 

Here, the written and the visual meet the ideal of being equal partners. Neither, alone, could tell the whole story nearly as powerfully as the two. It's noteworthy that the artist provides with his statement a bibliography of recent historical research sources that inform his project, so we are not left questioning the veracity of his anecdotes. He notes when information is reported rather than documented. 

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Heart Mountain Relocation Center,
Heart Mountain, Wyoming, 
Archival inkjet print, approximately 18 x 23." Courtesy of the artist.
This show succeeds on so many levels. As unlabeled photography, it is haunting. The flat, seemingly featureless landscapes are imbued with life by incidents we would in other places barely notice at all. The splintery poles and the rusting tanks are focal points in apparent nothingness. Add the scripted stories, and those strange, scarce populations of indifferent things assume poignant and sometimes terrifying meaning: The documentary purpose is revealed, as is the passion of the artist. 

In his statement, Kuroiwa writes that he wants to translate the "Japanese facade of 'Gaman'...into the tangible shame, pain, and injustice under the surface." He's achieved his goal. He's done it not without exhibiting gaman himself, if that quality means facing hardship with self-control, kindness, and discipline. Resurfaced demonstrates all of those qualities. But there is translation too: By the end, we know who he is, where he stands, and just how he feels.

Kuroiwa's show remains at ROY G BIV through November 30, when there will be an artist's talk at 2:30 p.m.