Is it possible to know a wilderness? To recognize each rock formation, every mood of sun and shadow? Or is the point of wilderness to be unfathomable, a steadfast reminder of the limits of human control? It’s a question underpinning the annual Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition, where artists present work depicting or inspired by the park’s beauty and cultural history.
Now in its seventh year, the juried portion of the event is underway at the 29 Palms Art Gallery and runs through Sept. 29. More than 130 artists submitted 347 entries, with jurors selecting 57 for inclusion. During the weekend of Sept. 14-15, more artists will participate in an open-air art market accompanied by demonstrations, talks, live music, and special events held at the 29 Palms Art Gallery, 29 Palms Inn, Old Schoolhouse Museum, 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery, and the Joshua Tree National Park Headquarters & Oasis Visitor Center.
A related event, the Night Sky Festival, will be held Sept. 21 at Sky's the Limit Observatory and Nature Center. It serves as a fundraiser for the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, which produces the Art Expo.
The juried exhibition draws international interest, with contributions from Alaska, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, British Columbia, and throughout California. Understandably, the show is heavy on the area's natural attributes, particularly the distinctive yucca "trees" and sculptural rock formations. Juror Sarah Scheideman says she looked for artists who took those familiar landmarks in new directions.
"Some people are able to capture the feeling and essence of Joshua Tree," Scheideman says. "There's depth to certain pieces. Maybe it's the shading or the perspective, or a random plant."
"Big Boulders" by artist Ben Allanoff.
Born and raised in the desert — her grandparents owned the Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley, and her grandfather was a dedicated volunteer in the park — Scheideman appreciates art that explores the quirky sides of park life. “Joshua Tree gets romanticized a lot but it’s actually a very eerie place sometimes,” she says. “Having space creates room for mystique, in a way. When everything looks like it’s calm, it never really is. It’s bubbling underneath. In the high desert, of course there’s weird activity happening out there. Whether you see it or not, you can feel it.”
Ben Allanoff uses water, canvas, and steel to convey the weirdness and wonder of the park’s massive monzogranite boulders. His process started by accident when he left scrap metal out in the rain. He continues to experiment with different methods, sometimes wrapping industrial parts and other found objects in fabric, soaking it, and burying the whole thing in sand to get the right texture.
The finished prints give the sensation that rocks themselves came to rest on the canvas, meaty bodies arranged in the deep comfort of geologic time. Shapes might appear recognizable – a footprint here, a belly there – but it’s simply an attempt to find ourselves in this place. The forms sleep in a way that only rocks can sustain.
Allanoff is part of the latest influx of artists coming from Los Angeles to the desert. He knows the area well, having visited on vacation since the 1980s. As a location scout for film and television, he crisscrossed the back roads of the Morongo Basin, ultimately making a permanent move to Joshua Tree in 2016.
With the vast sky and land for inspiration, artist Ben Allanoff finds his work “wants to be bigger.”
“I’ve loved the physical environment for a long time, but then I discovered the community here. It’s very open, welcoming, supportive,” he says. With the vast sky and land for inspiration, he finds his work “wants to be bigger.” And he’s right at home in the school of desert assemblage, following the path of artists such as Noah Purifoy, who treated sun and wind as raw materials.
Other standouts in this year’s Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition include Jim Smart’s meticulous black-and-white photograph of otherworldly saucer clouds, Travis Usher’s hyperrealistic memento mori showing a bighorn ram skull surrounded by poisonous jimsonweed, and Valerie Messervy Birkhoff’s “Praeservare,” a composite portrait, done in clay, of multiple park service employees and a Cahuilla chief.
Laurie Schafer portrays a desert view with fabric shaped like a bathrobe or kimono, suggesting domestic intimacy with the trees and hills surrounding her home. Juniper Harrower takes us into the dirt through digital illustration in a special exhibit, “The Desert Underground,” created with Robin Kobaly, executive director of The SummerTree Institute, an environmental education nonprofit.
Scientists and lifelong friends, Kobaly and Harrower collaborated on a presentation to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on the fragile network connecting life under the surface, and the need to take it into account when considering future development. The presentation grew into an immersive art exhibit, lecture series, book, and an upcoming documentary. As Kobaly writes, “Soils are not given much attention above an acknowledgement that they are the interface between the living and the non-living realms, the product of the opposing forces of geology and biology.”
"Desert Vista from My Screen Door" by artist Laurie Schafer.
Through her words and Harrower’s delicate, detailed images, the exhibit reveals how desert plants and soil microbes work together to capture carbon and dangerous particulates, mitigating climate change and preventing dust storms. Visitors to the exhibit may be surprised to learn about this cooperative system working silently under our feet. It’s fitting that on the 25th anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, which established Joshua Tree National Park as well as Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, there are still portions of wilderness beyond our scope, waiting for us to notice and understand.
For more information, visit jtnparts.org.
To see more of Ben Allanoff’s work, mark your calendar for October’s Highway 62 Open Studio Art Tours (Oct. 5-20). He’s bringing large-scale sculptural installations, collaborative art projects, and a pop-up gallery to the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
GALLERY: A sampling of the paintings, prints, sculpture, photography and other art forms on display in the seventh annual Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition.