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Review: This Statuesque Train Wreck in the Coachella Valley Is Worth Celebrating

Wind whipped hard and blew clouds of gritty sand over landscaped bushland outside Palm Springs on opening day of Desert X 2023, the fourth installment of the Coachella Valley’s biennial exhibition of newly commissioned art. (Neville Wakefield and Diana Campbell are curators.) At times during the nearly half-mile walk to the rugged site of Matt Johnson’s massive sculpture, “The Sleeping Figure,” from a dusty parking lot just off I-10 near the Palm Springs turnoff on Highway 111, it was hard to stay upright. The robust sculpture, however, did not budge an inch.

A dozen salvaged rail freight cars are securely welded in place, end to end and, in some places, stacked high. The upside down shapes evoke a surprise suggestion of a human body casually reclining on the rocky field. It’s an industrial-strength pastoral, the art genre that used to signal humanity’s dominance over nature.

Here, however, the dramatic gesture is more ambiguous. The splendid colossus takes on the mythologies of land art unique to the West in the last half century, both celebrating and questioning the legacy of artists such as robert smithsonMichael Heizer nancy holt and walter of mary, whose monumental sculptures reside in remote desert sites from Utah to New Mexico. And it cleverly raises the stinging issue that has plagued Desert X since 2019. That’s when the organizers, seemingly unconcerned with the murder of state-led Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, sadly forged a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, the absolute monarchy. vicious and repressive where free speech is illegal.

That arrangement seriously damaged the reputation of the biennial. Prominent Desert X board members resigned in protest, including artist Ed Ruscha, who for decades has been on the run in nearby Pioneertown. Despite protests, the pact has led to two displays in the Saudi desert, the most recent in 2022.

Matt Johnson, “The Sleeping Figure (detail)”, 2023, mixed media.

(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

“Sleeping Figure” isn’t just the most compelling entry in the biennale’s current iteration, an otherwise bland affair that features a dozen works, few of which do much to reward the considerable effort of viewing them. (Be prepared for a 50-mile hike to reach all 12 sites, most scattered between Desert Hot Springs and Palm Desert and in the same locations as previous years’ work.) Of the 59 commissions produced since the series launched in 2017, Johnson’s sculpture is one of the best.

The jagged up-and-down composition of freight cars echoes the beautiful, rugged backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountain Range. Its slam-bang visual clunker contrasts with a long, steady stream of freight trains passing behind it, day and night, on a manufactured river that transfers tons of cargo from the Port of Los Angeles to distribution centers to the east. . Inevitably, if only coincidentally, disasters like the toxic derailment of a freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, last month come to mind, as do the historic combination of staggering prosperity and shameful ruin that the railroads brought to life. construction of the United States.

Unexpectedly, given the enormous sculptural materials and its social history, the rise and fall of forms create a light, airy, and porous reclining body, its head resting on one hand on the end of a supported arm, while one leg is casually crossed. . the other. Given a standard boxcar length of 50 or 60 feet, the colossus stretches nearly two-thirds the length of a football field.

It is not the first composition of this type by the artist. Six years ago, for example, Johnson, who works in Los Angeles, made a figure with a similar pose for a table. The ingenious sculpture’s limbs and torso are carved and painted to resemble loaves of bread. “Take, eat”, shamelessly implies the figure of the cigar-chewing bread; “this is my body.”

A reclining humanoid figure, holding a cigar, is carved to appear as though it is made from loaves of bread.

Matt Johnson, “Bread Figure (Reclining)”, 2017, carved wood and paint.

(Blum and Poe)

The reclining body built from freight cars is genderless, although in art typically a reclining figure is female. Think of a variety of voluptuous sleeping Venuses for Titian or Giorgione, languid nudes that are like an exquisite Renaissance Playboy centerfold designed for the private gratification of an inevitably male patron. Edouard Manet put a modern twist on tradition, juxtaposing a nude woman with some fully clothed men picnicking in a wooded park for his painting “Lunch on the Grass,” and seating the nude sex worker in “olympia” upright on a divan, looking at the viewer.

income and Matisse transformed the reclining body into an odalisque, dressing his women in sheer harem pants and silk turbans, decorating them with jeweled peacock-feather fans. The reclining female nude was stereotyped as “exotic”, a condescending orientalist motif fueled by the aggressive Near Eastern exploits of 19th-century European colonial powers. It was to be taken over, like foreign territory, subjugated to the desires of a greater power.

Johnson’s “Sleeping Figure” is a mercantile odalisque, draped in orientalist trappings of corporate Asia that advertises itself with prominent trade names painted on the sides of rail containers: Hyundai, Dongfang, Zim, China Shipping, and more. The sculpture’s gender ambiguity is in stark contrast to our habit of projecting comforting feminine features onto the landscape (think Mother Nature), a habit we give ourselves permission to take advantage of. In a globalist world, who knows who is taking advantage of whom?

Johnson’s reclining metal torso pierced with holes and set in a lifelike landscape is also reminiscent of the primordial bones of henry moore bronzes scattered across the British Hertfordshire countryside. Moore’s organic forms are transformed into minimalist boxes, updating a romantic sculptural legacy into something akin to a Hasbro Transformer. Johnson’s composition, regardless of all that tonnage, feels almost toy-like, as if made by a child playing with blocks.

Take a look at the figure’s head: it features a rudimentary face defined by an angular bar for a mouth, surmounted by a pair of painted arches for closed eyes. The pictogram is a clever cross between two digital Unicode signs — the arcs that denote sleep, the bar that designates confusion. The “dream of reason” becomes an emoji. Machine shapes collide with digital fictions to compose a corporate odalisque now in bed with the vast “eastern” wealth of Saudi criminals. Culture dwarfs nature, despite the wild and enveloping desert setting.

Johnson’s break inserts a lingering question mark into the very idea of ​​gigantic land-art projects. They’re filled with children’s toys meant to last forever, like Heizer’s mile-long minimalist temple complex.City”, recently opened to accommodate six visitors a day (at $150 each) in remote Nevada, or James Turrell’s grandiose sky observatory on an extinct volcano on the edge of Arizona’s Painted Desert, still unfinished after more than 40 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

Emblematic of Desert X and its decadent embrace of Saudi thugs, an orientalist train wreck is hard to beat. Johnson’s “Sleeping Figure” steals the show. And when was the last time land art made you laugh out loud?

Desert X 2023 will be on view throughout the Coachella Valley through May 7. Maps and application information are available on the exhibition website, desertx.org.