Western art, and especially contemporary Native art, seems to be having a moment — a flourishing of visually amazing work that addresses a troubled history and its enduring ramifications. Work like Gerald Clarke’s Continuum Basket: Pivot, constructed with crushed aluminum beer and soda cans and mounted on a satellite dish, almost 8 feet in diameter, with graphic motifs drawn from a pair of early 1900s Cahuilla baskets. The sculpture, one of the most striking objects in Palm Springs Art Museum’s exhibition Lines in the Sand (through Aug. 11, 2019), ultimately comments on the neglect of native habitat and the disproportionately high rates of alcoholism and diabetes in Native communities.
“He looked at Native baskets in the collection for inspiration,” says exhibition co-curator Christine Giles, explaining that the Cahuilla artist created this work in a way that honors tradition: “He found what was readily available — the cans — and adapted.”
The sculpture has a decidedly nocturnal theme with its geometric iconography referencing bats that fly at night and tobacco leaves that bloom at night, and cleverly raises current social, economic, and environmental issues.
VIDEO: Curators David Evans Frantz and Christine Giles of the Palm Springs Art Museum briefly discuss the exhibition Lines in the Sand.
That idea encapsulates the intent of Lines in the Sand, which takes a deep dive into the history of the Coachella Valley, beginning with indigenous objects and spanning more than 100 years of impressionist, modern, and contemporary painting as well as photography and sculpture.
Giles and associate curator David Evans Frantz organized the exhibition into four themes — land, people, place, and light — and reveal compelling relationships between past and present. For example, Eva Slater’s 1960 abstract landscape painting, San Jacinto Mountains, connects indigenous basketry, early desert plein air painting, and midcentury hard edge abstraction. Slater was a student of one of L.A.’s pioneer hard edge painters, Lorser Feitelson, and also close with his wife, artist Helen Lundeberg. The triangular “cells” Slater used to render the contours of the majestic San Jacintos relate to the geometric shapes and symbols she observed in her own collection of Native basketry (the artist gained expertise and published a book on the subject in 2000).
“The exhibition gave us an opportunity to dig into the collection, pull out things that haven’t been seen brought out in a while — a mix of historical and contemporary works typically shown separately — to tell the story about what this region is, juxtaposing architectural styles, high and low culture, and thinking about different textures and types of objects,” Frantz says. “The idea is to give people a better understanding of the history of this place.”
Some of the Native pottery and baskets in Lines in the Sand have been in the museum vault for decades. “These ollas have never been shown in my 25 years here,” Giles says, pointing to a selection installed with desert landscape paintings by Agnes Pelton and James Swinnerton “to emphasize the relationship of color and material.”
Gerald Clarke created the sculpture Continuum Basket: Pivot with crushed soda and beer cans to comment on the high rates of diabetes and alcoholism in Native communities.
“The exhibition gave us an opportunity to dig into the collection, pull out things that haven’t been brought out in a while —a mix of historical and contemporary works typically shown separately — to tell the story about what this place is.”
In the exhibition salon dedicated to the desert’s distinctive light, the curators placed two more Pelton paintings side by side, one a traditional landscape (Between Storms, Edom Hill) and the other (Future) a luminous modern canvas that hangs comfortably among contemporary works by light and space artists Helen Pashgian, Mary Corse, and Frederick Eversley. Other works exploring light include two landscape paintings each by John Hilton and Lockwood de Forest as well as John Biberman’s 1968 Palm Canyon (Lyric Landscape).
The salon exploring the people of the region includes a trio of photogravure-on-tissue prints of desert Cahuilla photographed in 1924 by Edward S. Curtis for The North American Indian, his magnum opus spanning 1900 to 1930 containing 20 volumes of ethnographic writing and 2,226 sepia-toned images recording more than 80 tribal groups — from the northernmost Inuit or Eskimo people to the Hopi and Cahuilla in the Southwest. Other works in this section include artist sketchbooks, watercolors, and graphite drawings by Carl Eytel as well as illustrations that Bill Bender created for Edward Maddison Ainsworth’s 1960–61 Beckoning Desert.
A few surprises surface in the salon focused on place, particularly the George Brandriff canvas, Palm Springs Indian Reservation (c. 1920), which the curators believe shows the part of town now known as Section 14. The fraught history of this square-mile quadrant begins as the source of boiling mineral water and the birthplace of the area’s tourism industry. It was the site of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ first bathhouse and later home to a community of mixed races and ethnicities that the city famously bulldozed in the 1960s. This slice of the exhibition also includes architectural photography by Julius Shulman, including an image of the iconic concrete-domed entrance colonnade of the Spa Hotel, which the tribe demolished in 2014 to clear the site for a new spa and cultural center.
The show also includes ephemera, such as photographer Stephen H. Willard’s postcards of Palm Springs and old issues of Randall Henderson’s Desert Magazine, published between 1937 and 1985.
The museum should consider expanding this show with a fuller history and deeper scholarship.
The George Brandriff painting Palm Springs Indian Reservation (c. 1920) is believed to depict the part of town that’s now known as Section 14.
Eva Slater’s 1960 painting San Jacinto Mountains introduces hard-edge abstraction to the desert landscape.