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Works in Progress: Objects and Life-as-art

October 17, 2010

Anselm Kiefer, "Gesamtkunstwerk", Barjac, FranceScene from a production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" with set and projection by William Kentridge
[Description: Left, a view of basically Anselm Kiefer’s backyard in France, where he has built what he calls a “gesamtkunstwerk” or all-over artwork of teetering concrete towers and stacks of oversize lead-paged books. Right, a scene from a recent production of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” with sets and animated projections by (my total fave) William Kentridge. The stage is mostly dark, and the Queen of the Night is centered under a spotlight while projected moving drawings suggestive of astronomical maps swirl around her.]

The best thing for me about living in Southern California is visiting the off-beat monuments and quirky establishments scattered around the region, the products of idiosyncratic individualists and the markers of frequently bizarre twists of history that seem only possible here, in a landscape marked by extremes and by great mediocrity. Some of these strange landmarks deservedly garner MacArthur grants; others of great significance struggle to stay standing and stay open. I’m going to talk about two places I have visited recently.

Objects have their own kind of histories and it is a real and rare pleasure to visit artworks in situ. In the case of these monuments, the object is actually merged with the place — and the place is continually in process (of expansion, or of decay), and the process is so idiosyncratic that it is merged with the person(a) creating it.

It is worth thinking once in a while about the factors inherent in objects — besides their “goodness” or quality — that contributed to their being appropriated or adopted as art at certain historical moments. Size and portability, permanence, similarities to established fine art categories like painting and sculpture, investment with spiritual or important cultural meaning… all these things carry value judgments in addition to determining whether an object can fit (literally and figuratively) in a museum or other fine-art setting. To become art (in a conventional sense) an object must be displayed, and to be displayed it must be in a suitable size and format for the art-viewing mechanisms we have, and preferably be salable. (Even installation art, which is praised for being un-monetizeable and un-migrateable, can still be billed by art instutitions as an exclusive experience.)

There may be many reasons why the two sites that I visited have not been embraced as art, despite their evident status as their creators’ masterworks.


Salvation Mountain

Salvation MountainSalvation Mountain

[Description: Left, a round, tall structure made out of hay bales, with multi-colored paint and Bible verse designations written on it. Right, a hillside, topped by a cross, covered in bright, glossy colors, shapes, and messages, including “God Is Love.”]

Out in the remote, flat, very hot desert near the Salton Sea, Leonard Knight lives alone (but not wanting for visitors) in a converted truck parked at the base of his hand-sculpted, paint-straw-and-adobe Earthwork.

Nearby towns are composed of mobile homes in small fenced-in squares of dirt; there is no real economy that I can see. A woman with two teacup dogs is selling a self-published history of the area from her yard in Niland. It is ponderously, excessively hot.

Salvation Mountain

[Description: 3 detail views of painted and sculpted surfaces of Salvation Mountain, with flowers, Biblical messages, and graphic blue stripes representing a waterfall down the slope of the hillside.]

It feels important to have a kind of purposeful narrative when you’re faced with such a massive and unending project. Knight has a message of love, an aptitude for living simply, and a serious kind of tenacity. A lifelong loner and army veteran who got religion at the age of 36, He has been working on Salvation Mountain for thirty years. Knight’s only creative experience previous to the mountain was painting some cars and the creation of a giant handsewn hot air balloon (aquired by the Folk Art Museum). The simplicity of his mission (and seemingly of the man himself) is a major part of the appeal, because the product is so remote and bizarre and outsized compared to the retold, simplified story of the man. The naive, lumpy and joyful qualities of the work are intensified by their monochrome, impoverished, desert surroundings.


Nit Wit Ridge
Nit WIt RidgeNit Wit Ridge
[Description: Left, the front facade of Nit Wit Ridge, with three levels and verandahs, each level made of different materials, including arches of stone, wood siding painted green, and corrugated plastic. Right, decoration inside the kitchen includes formal pink wallpaper, a print of peaches, and old advertisement posters, including one for 7-up.]

Begun in 1928, construction on Art Beal’s residence continued until he was removed from it into a nursing home. As the garbage collector for Cambria, CA and as the owner of a small sloping lot, Beal had access to a range of scavenged building materials, conventional and un-, that he put to use on a multi-story residence filled with beauty (walls and arches lined with dozens of abalone shells from the local canning operation) and sad humor (his and hers facing toilets, though Beal lived alone, left by his wife). The house’s proximity to Hearst Castle is the source of puns and comparisons throughout the guided tour. The house is considered an eyesore by many in the area.
Nit Wit RidgeNit Wit Ridge

[Description: Left, a multi-colored tile and abalone shell backsplash over the outdoor stovetop. Right, uneven concrete steps leading up to the entrance of the house are faced with abalone shells.]

The overwhelming, encouraging feeling radiating from these sites is this: If you want to make something, just make it. With whatever you have around. Nevermind safety and propriety, nevermind poverty, screw gravity even. Don’t let these conventional obstacles stop you. When asked why he built the sparkling openwork Watts Towers, Simon Rodia responded, “Why I build it?  I can’t tell you. Why a man make the pants? Why a man make the shoes?”

The “why” of creative work has been a topic of ongoing discussion in my household for a while now: whom are we trying to answer when we talk about why we make? How “far down” do we have to go with that question: why make this line blue, or why make anything at all? A lot of these processes are a little bit mysterious, which I think is good. Another thing I appreciate about these projects — which really transcend the categories of “folk art” and “site-specific” or any of that — is that the “why” of them is acknowledged in an honest, unaffected way.

I’m not really sure.
I have this message I think is important.
I wanted to make something big so I did.


This is not really the focus of my response to these sites, but since I’ve mentioned a number of projects by men, let’s look at visionary art practice through the lens of gender for a second. Most materials I have found on women and folk art center on women’s traditional domestic production: needlework, quilting, and among upper-class women, appropriate lady accomplishments like watercolor painting. It’s less art than it is “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong, the products of all this labor are demonstrably awesome. And in terms of collecting and establishing the legacies of women artists, folk art-focused outfits have a notable advantage over high-art establishments — the normal issues of access (to education, art materials, art community, etc) and institutional biases don’t apply in the same ways.

Late 19th Cent. Crazy Quilt, Unknown Artist, Folk Art Museum [Description: A virtuoso crazy quilt, with mostly red, blue, neutral, and black patches, some with symbols, flowers, flags, and even little portraits in them, and a central larger applique with a chicken (?). It’s roughly square and has a fan pattern made of thin radiating strips in each corner.]

Social or economic conditions that contribute to folk artists’ outsider status are too often glossed over or romanticized (or both at once).  Choices of hobbies and pastimes are results of social strictures and economic forces, and this is one of the ways that objects are carriers of our cultural histories. For women historically, artistic expression (and most activities) followed conventions of propriety and developed skills needed for wife- and motherhood; in other words, it was (unpaid) work done for the family unit. Nevertheless, although women’s work was devalued and the subjects and media of that work rather severly limited, well-executed pieces, whether functional or decorative, added prestige to a household and demonstrate that women used these art forms as a means of creative expression throughout their lives.

Relatedly, it’s less common for women to be solitary, unenmeshed, un-responsible-to-others like these masculine counterparts I’ve mentioned who have no demand for utility for their handiwork. Quilts and things are fundamentally different from large-scale, sited, functionless works like Salvation Mountain (which are perhaps fundamentally different from the large-scale, sited, functionless artworks I showed at the top).

On the other hand, creativity is creativity, folks!

(Perhaps the people who are lucky enough to collect or curate art assume that men and women in all times have had as much control over their lives and free time as they do. Sort of conversely, perhaps one reason we so much admire those artists who struck out on their own is that we feel that we don’t have that ability to direct our own lives.)


Further reading:

Salvation Mountain website
New York’s Folk Art Museum exhibition of women artists
Watts Towers website
Raw Vision Magazine (note: I think “outsider art,” which is used prominently here, is kind of an insidious term and not preferred)
Salton Sea and desert books: Greetings from the Salton Sea, photographs by Kim Stringfellow; Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low Down California, by William DeBuys and Joan Myers; Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

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