An easing sensation consumes your body shortly after you exit Interstate 10 at Highway 62 near Palm Springs. First comes the relief of leaving the traffic in your dust and then the awe of the imposing mountains as you ascend into the High Desert. The feeling tapers as the road, aka Twentynine Palms Highway, stretches toward Joshua Tree and you pull into the tiny but bustling “downtown” village outside the national park. Here, hippies, bikers, artists, and makers find a measure of community in rustic saloons, vintage goods stores, and funky places like Art Queen, a gallery and performance complex with an old lime-green photo development kiosk rechristened as the World Famous Crochet Museum.
A mile north of the main crossroad, Park Boulevard, signs of civilization wane. Few vehicles pass on the road and even fewer structures stand in the distance. The vast desert opens wide, and the sensation returns.
Turn onto almost any street and within a few hundred feet you’ll be on a dirt road, headed off the grid. It’s a remote place of great extremes, with snowy lows and triple-digit highs occurring in quick swings. And it’s lonely. Those who come here are either seeking or running away from something. It’s a place where loners, burners, and tweakers coexist with retirees and free-spirited creative types, and where L.A. hipsters and eccentrics come to decompress.
“There’s a calm here,” says artist Angel Chen, staring into the horizon from outside her one-room geodesic dome house while Romeo, her shih tzu–poodle mix, runs off-leash around the fenced 1.5-acre property. Chen bought the Zen Dome, as she named it, almost two years ago from a former filmmaker who left behind a camera used on Pink Floyd: The Wall and a wind machine from The Wizard of Oz.
“Being here gives me a deep connection with nature and an escape from the noise of downtown L.A.,” she says. “Seeking out an environment totally of your own making is a shout to yourself and others that ‘I’m not compromising. I’m at the age in my life when it’s time to give myself what I want.’ ” Chen, who was born in Taiwan, has lived in Asia, Europe, New York, and Los Angeles. “I’ve tried on different fantasies, and after all that, the silence of the desert is what I want. You can focus here without distraction. The rural space seemed like a luxury for when you retire. But you never retire. So here I am.”
Angel Chen’s current series, Forces of Nature, involves a variety of materials, including ceramics she fires in an on-premise kiln.
Chen especially appreciates the ability to work simultaneously on several large paintings and a variety of ceramics (she has a kiln on premises). “The studio is three times larger than the space I had in L.A.”
But she was unprepared for Mother Nature’s heavy hand on the open land. Howling winds and wild dust storms pound the dome with relentless ferocity. The elements, she says, are epic and enduring.
They’re also inspiring. That energy ripples through her ongoing series, Forces of Nature.
In her bright, spacious studio, a remodeled three-car garage, 10 large-scale, wildly abstract-expressionist paintings — loosely depicting a wave, volcano, tornado, and black mountain — draw you into a whirlwind of water, fire, air, and earth. They’re almost sculptural in composition, a cacophony of oil stick, plaster, tar, acrylic, silk, gauze, leather, twigs, and silver and gold leaf.
Angel Chen’s “stack” pieces begin as layers of clay scooped from the bodies of other works. (left) The artist in repose.
“Gesture is the impulse, the potential, the kinetic,” she says. “I don’t want to lose that. I’m at that midpoint [in this series], where the paintings are becoming more composed and practiced. There’s a point where that can go too far. Now it’s about restraint without losing that spontaneous energy.”
Chen has described this body of work as “femme brut,” delicate and forceful, raw and refined. Like the artists of the New York School, she looks to abstraction as a mode of personal freedom and expression, embraces nontraditional materials, and struggles to maintain balance between chaos and control.
The newest painting among these works contains no paint at all. Rather, she draped leather skins of varying colors — white, taupe, light gray, charcoal, and burgundy — in “a way that is free and natural as possible. My hand is removed.
“I really love painting,” she deadpans. “So this is a conundrum.”
Forces of Nature also includes ceramic works, encompassing a variety of splashes, waves, stacks, and organic forms with striking color and texture. “The wave was the first sculptural icon in the Forces of Nature series,” she says, running her hand over one of the forms. “The arc is such a comfortable shape. It’s soothing.”
Her “stack” pieces began as layers of clay scooped from the bodies of other works. They took on the forms of totems, mountains, and trail markers and exude a sacred quality, like Chinese scholars’ rocks or spirit stones. She says they’re both contemplative and like “something you leave behind to show you were there, which is particularly necessary in the desert.
“This is an opportunity to share with artist friends and people who want to create or learn about permaculture.”Angel Chen
“The excitement of abstraction is its unrecognizability.”
Joshua Tree has had a transformative effect on Chen. Everything seems possible. She’s free to experiment without the scrutinizing eyes of dealers and collectors. “Ultimately, you want to create an environment where you can make your best work,” she says. “This place gives you a lot of freedom and allows you to be yourself.”
Chen has become a fixture in the community — she had a solo exhibition at Art Queen last year, and Zen Dome was a cultural partner in last spring’s Joshua Treenial — and an evangelist for High Desert living. Her fledgling Joshua Tree Society for Art and Living invites artists, designers, writers, and musicians to apply for weeklong residencies.
“When you discover something, you want to share it with others,” Chen says, adding she has already hosted an artist, who worked for a week, had an opening, and sold four pieces. “This is an opportunity to share with artist friends and people who want to create or learn about permaculture or come for a weeklong immersion.”
Chen recently doubled down and bought the adjacent 1.5-acre lot, where she envisions an underground art installation and a place for the community to gather and revel in wild and spontaneous creativity.
She calls for Romeo, who was resting in the shade after subduing a wayward soccer ball, and checks on a guest staying in a luxurious tent positioned under a large tree. As she walks back to the dome, Chen takes a panoramic glance of the property, pauses, and feels that easing sensation. “Anything can happen here.”