Room to Play

Yucca Valley Visual & Performing Arts Center opens 15,000 square feet to art, education, and performance in the High Desert.

Susan Myrland Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

Desert Hot Springs artist Robert Miramontes is part of the exhibit, Ground to Sky: Full Circle to open the Yucca Valley Visual & Performing Arts Center.

Generally speaking, art openings in the desert have a different texture than what you might find elsewhere. A little more egalitarian, for starters. A lot more eclectic.

When the Yucca Valley Visual & Performing Arts Center opened June 2, it spiked the mix with a touch of theatrical surrealism. An affable youth wearing a plaid vest and large, fuzzy bear head wandered through the crowd while a woman dressed as a dragon invited visitors to sign the guest book. Other costumed characters mingled with a variety of hipsters and hippies and collectors with purse dogs and a variety of sock/sandal combinations.

The Yucca Valley Visual & Performing Arts Center, or YV Arts Center for short, is the newest annex of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, based in Joshua Tree. The Joshua Tree location runs a busy schedule of theater performances, arts education programs, residencies, art shows, festivals, a philharmonic symphony orchestra, and a master chorus.

Jarrod Radnich, president of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, says it was bursting at the seams, needing more room for rehearsals, sets, wardrobes, and classes. Over in Yucca Valley, the site of a former Harley-Davidson dealership was sitting empty. Radnich mobilized his board, staff, and volunteers, raised about $300,000 for renovation, signed a long-term lease, and converted it into YV Arts Center.

YV Arts Center has a large gallery with moveable walls , a dance studio, rehearsal space, offices, and outdoor sites for sculpture and installations.

Coming soon are a kitchen for cooking classes; a costume, fashion design and fabric arts studio; a carpentry shop for scenic design, woodwork and metal; and classrooms for painting and ceramics. In the fall, an audio recording studio opens where students can produce artist interviews and panel discussions for broadcast and internet streaming through a partnership with Kix Hot Country (KX92.1/96.3). Video and podcasting are also in the plans.

To oversee the visual arts portion, Radnich hired curator Michael McCall, who was living in Los Angeles but had already started the process of moving to the desert.

“This is like a little nugget that landed in my lap,” McCall says. “I get to set the foundation of this place from the ground up. You don’t get that chance many times.”

“I was asked in my interview, ‘Tell us what you want to do in your first year.’ I went back to L.A. and thought about it … what it’s like to be up here in the High Desert. How magical it feels to be underneath the incredible canopy of stars and planets that you can actually see with your naked eye. And then just noticing how extreme everything is, how materials get beat up by being in this kind of weather.”

McCall's debut exhibition, Ground to Sky: Full Circle, pays tribute to Noah Purifoy, the trailblazing assemblage artist whose style helped define a High Desert aesthetic, that devotion to all things rusty and reflective, where sunblasted castoffs are refashioned into objects that take on a wry outsider’s stance. These are statements on life in a harsh climate, reminders about scarcity, and the need for resourcefulness.

The show, continuing through Aug. 11, opens with three pieces from Purifoy, flowing seamlessly into newer works by Cathy Allen, Bobby Furst, Allene Payne, Vera Topinka, and eight more artists, including Lake Havasu sculptor Dustin Otterbach. His large wall piece, Saw, places 16 weathered saws in a pinwheel around an airplane nose cone. Nearby, two steel patio table frames form a pair of oversized glasses.

For the “sky” portion, McCall sought 15 specialists in night photography and videography, such as Desert Hot Springs’ Robert Miramontes, who pushes long-exposure experiments into otherworldly territory; Duane Cassone, a pioneer in the “star trails” technique; and Wally Pacholka, a leader in the field of landscape astrophotography, blending starry skies with the surrounding environment.

McCall’s next exhibition, Desert Icons (Aug. 25–Oct. 27), focuses on artists from the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities, tweaking  visual clichés about what “the desert” is.

“No matter where an artist lives, their environment affects them,” he says. “It might change the way you make things, or what you make, or how you perceive things. I want these artists to show us how the desert has affected them.”

Launching a new cultural center with back-to-back shows that are heavily introspective, even existential, helps McCall learn the talent pool, but also seems right for a region that is both proud of, and struggling with, its burgeoning popularity as an “arts mecca."”

“We live in an amazing time. There’s so much creative energy on this planet. There are amazing artists everywhere,” says McCall.

"I'm going to try to do some cutting-edge stuff, too. Some people say there’s no cutting edge left. But, you know, we'll see.”

Yucca Valley Visual & Performing Arts Center, 58325 Highway 62. 760-366-3777;yvarts.org