Saturday, October 6, 2012

Art and Inspiration in Nevada

I have to begin with a disclaimer.  Here in the Bay Area, the title of this post might suggest this is yet another tome praising Burning Man.  But no, read on.  It’s easy to make that assumption.  It seems you can’t go to any social gathering without someone trying to convert you to the “experience.”  When I say I love going to the desert, I have lost count of the number of times someone has asked, “Do you go to Burning Man?”  The answer is always no!  I go on to explain that I love the desert for its solitude, it’s quiet, its beauty.  I’m not a big crowd or big party sort of person.  A party in the desert is just not my thing. 

The devotees of Burning Man can rarely just leave it.  The art they tell me, what about the art?  Yes, the “art” (quotes very intentional).  I have seen plenty of photos.  Last month a friend sent me a link with photos of this year’s event.  The nighttime photos were stylistically interesting, but frankly the skilled photographer could have made a strip mall parking lot look just as an intriguing.  The “art” at Burning Man had little to do with the quality of those photos.  I also see Burning Man art installed around San Francisco.  Never has it compelled me to spend the time, money and energy of going to Burning Man.  By contrast, I dream of a trip to Korea just based on a few exhibits at the Asian Art Museum.  Ten years ago, I first heard of Marfa, Texas and got there as quick as I could.  Now, that’s art in the desert.

Back to Nevada, I just completed what I’ll call a Great Basin Road Trip.  It was a week on the road that started by heading due East with a drive over the Tioga Pass. Nevada presents some challenges for a road trip.  There are vast expanses with few people.  You need to think about where you’ll fill the gas tank and where you’ll even find a motel.  I planned this trip to be one where I was in no particular hurry.  Allowing myself to stop when I found something that caught my interest.  I say “no particular hurry” but cruise control is your best friend.  Let’s just say that without cruise control, hypothetically, you find Perez Prado blasting on the car stereo and you look at the speedometer and you, hypothetically of course, are hitting 100 mph. 

The second day of the trip I woke up in Tonopah, Nevada.  Tonopah is a mining town that survived in a landscape that is dotted with ghost towns.  The mine is long closed, the population has grown smaller, but Tonopah still is a community.   Having frequently visited ghost towns like Bodie and Rhyolite, I find places like Tonopah fascinating.  In Rhyolite you have a few stone fa├žades, in Tonopah many of the old stone buildings are still standing and occupied.  By visiting both the ghost towns and similar towns that are still in existence, you get a different perspective on both places.  It is a different experience from the visiting a restored historic town or district.  Nevada is probably one of the only places where this could happen.

Tonopah offers two museums, neither an art museum per se, but still definitely an art experience.  I began with the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.   Okay, I have a certain affinity for old rusty stuff.  It always makes me whip out my camera.  If an artist had come along and placed all these discarded pieces of machinery, we would call it an installation.  Either way, it still has that effect.  The Hoist House was my favorite spot.  Hoist houses were industrial buildings with an adjacent tower and the machinery needed to hoist the loads of heavy ore out of the ground.  And, if those towers remind you of that much-talked-about “man” in the Nevada Desert, well yes, so much art really is derivative.  The building is well preserved.  There is certain magic about the interior of a large wood frame, tin clad building in the desert.  The intense desert light is always “calmed” inside these structures.  It’s bright yet gentle.  But the real magic is the sound.  As the day heats up there is the pop and crackling of metal and hardware expanding and contracting.  It’s hard to really describe, but once you’ve experienced it, you know.  And if you’re like me, you always like to step inside those buildings.

On the way out of town I stopped by the Central Nevada Museum.   I learned that sun and magnesium turn glass purple and I fell in love with a map of mining claims.  Keep an eye out, this pattern might appear in my work soon.  The road took me onward with a stop at the ever-kitschy Little A’Le’Inn near mythical Area 51.  And before reaching Utah I stopped at Cathedral Gorge State Park.  Nevada has a few lesser-known state parks that are of national park caliber.  As I pretty much had the place to myself, I shouldn’t complain.  Nevada has tough competition in the West.  It’s quite beautiful, but when you’re stuck between California, Utah and Arizona, no one seems to notice Nevada.  If we moved Nevada between say, Kansas and Oklahoma, well, everyone would rave about Nevada. 

After a few days in Utah and it was time to head home.  This time a different route that included Great Basin National Park and an overnight in Ely, Nevada.  Downtown Ely boasts a sculpture park with works by Sarah Sweetwater that incorporate abandoned mining equipment.  The next challenge is Loneliest Road in America.  Route 50 is a segment of the old Lincoln Highway and actually follows the original Pony Express Trail across Nevada.  It’s a long, but rather beautiful drive that ended in Reno. 

In Reno I held to my rule about visiting museums in smaller cities.  The Nevada Museum of Art is always worth a look.  The highlight of this visit was Richard Ross’s photographs of children caught up in America’s juvenile “justice” system.  It’s a disturbing and unpleasant show, but the sort of important subject that museums need to address at times.  I kept thinking, could this show even happen in a San Francisco venue?  It would never be pretty enough for the de Young.  Perhaps the SFMOMA, but frankly Ross will need to be “validated” more by New York to get on their radar.  Even Yerba Buena would be unlikely to show his work.  There are limits to their edginess. 

People ask why I go on desert road trips, well now you might have a better idea.  

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