[February 7 2018]
Before neat terms like ‘Precambrian’ and ‘Paleozoic’ were invented to describe the unimaginably vast timezones of Prehistory, there was Creation myth. It is the inbuilt human impetus to mythic exaggeration that conjures a petrified, fire-breathing dragon from the skeleton of a dinosaur found trapped inside solid rock. It is this urge that observes a layer of seashells in a mountain range and weaves the story of a flood so great it must have covered the entire Earth. A narrative which grew into the Biblical tale of Noah, a legend which has precedents back to Babylonian times, of a man who built a strange ship to preserve humanity and the biodiversity of the planet.
You can still find sea-shells in the Mojave Desert, that high and dry plateau, currently nowhere near the Californian coastline. Today, the ocean is 280 long miles, or 225 million years, away. It is here that you can also discover a Noah’s Ark of a different kind, one created much more recently on the geological scale by the hand of American Artist NOAH PURIFOY. Here, up from the dust, PURIFOY has crafted a carnival ground of artworks that are a testament to his unique imagination and skill. The Museum is open to anyone who makes the drive along the dirt roads running north of Joshua Tree into this sanctuary for the poetry of detritus.
Always striking his own path, Purifoy was at the forefront of the events of a tumultuous American century. 2017 marked 100 years since Purifoy’s birth in rural Alabama, mere months before the US Supreme Court ruled upon the racist residential segregation in the state. In the Navy during WWII, Purifoy was posted to the Pacific, and then settled in Los Angeles. Trained as a teacher, he decided to become an artist – and so it was in the 1950s that Purifoy was the first ‘student of colour’ to enrol full-time at Chouinard (later to become Cal Arts). In the 1960s he was a founding director of the Watts Towers Art Centre, safeguarding Simon Rodia’s eccentric spiral-tipped legacy. And in 1965, Purifoy and friends walked through the chaos of Watts after the riots, literally picking up the pieces of a society burned by fire and broken by violence. His seminal ‘66 Signs of Neon’ made of the melted street signs he salvaged are major works of 1966. For a time, he stopped making his own art to facilitate the work of others, at Watts and with the California Arts Council. But there was a final destination on his road – a last highway that led him to the High Desert of Joshua Tree. Purifoy relocated to Hidden River in 1989, and spent the rest of his life expanding his domain, passing in 2004 at the age of 86. A major monographic show at LACMA entitled Junk Dada in 2015 brought much attention to Purifoy and his work, as key sculptures were temporarily relocated from the desert floor and exposed to a new, indoor, audience. However, in his own lifetime, Purifoy eschewed mainstream art institutions as elitist and exclusionary, and he actively sought for his work not to be commodified or seen within blank ‘white cube’ contexts.
It is thus only here in the sun-drenched desert that you can enter Noah’s world the way he intended it to be felt. The artist factored in the desert’s strong Entropy as an active partner in his work, anticipating and welcoming the patina of rust and erosion, bleaching and splitting that he knew his sculptures would endure in this extreme environment.
Instead of animals two by two, this Noah’s Ark is a menagerie of objects made from that most 20th Century of material – discarded consumer goods, the nasty side-effect of America’s capitalist expansion with it’s hidden sting of built-in obsolescence. However they may have been dishonourably discharged from their former function, thrown away, left on a roadside, sold for scrap, to Noah these materials were all the more interesting for their journey towards him. Purifoy’s sculptor’s hands beat and bent and welded and folded and strapped and tied them into new shapes. He reworked them into iconic, ironic and symbolic forms that reference diverse aspects of American culture, from stark hang-man gallows to television addiction. The Surreal is natural, here. A stack of porcelain toilet bowls become a precariously curved tower. Dance trophies of bleached plastic couples twirl on long after the glory days of the circle-skirted dancers who whirled to win them are over. Chips of beer bottle glass embedded in the desert dirt become are as precious as an unearthed Pompeii mosaic. Bowling balls line up in a giant Newton’s cradle. An homage to the geometric architecture of Frank Gehry flashes bright white in corrugated steel. A bicycle rides forever in the sky. While many cultures bury replica grave goods or burn paper effigies of objects with their dead, Noah made for us sturdier versions of the shapes of our time, to transmit the extinct forms of our century into Future myth.
Text and photo Hannah Bhuiya, portrait by Tennessee Strok