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The second Desert X biennial exhibition, on display through April 21, consists of 19 site-specific works of art, created by an international group of acclaimed artists, spanning the Coachella Valley—including eight of the nine valley cities.

The sites, all open to the public for free, stretch from the windmills of North Palm Springs down to the Salton Sea—but the impact is being felt worldwide.

Desert X is the fulfillment of a dream by founder and president Susan L Davis, a public-relations professional and founding member of the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities. The idea was to create a conversation between cities, art organizations, local residents and visitors. The inaugural event in 2017 was acclaimed by the international art community, with more than 200,000 visitors. Excitement has been building over the last two years for the second edition.

I had the privilege to participate in this excitement at the two-day press briefing and tour, held before the opening to the general public. Neville Wakefield, Desert X’s artistic director, explained how artists and curators collaborated with the desert environment, while co-curator Matthew Schum said one of his inspirations was a desire to make Palm Springs more contemporary. However, the most prophetic statement came from co-curator Amanda Hunt: “The purpose of Desert X 2019 is to make the invisible visible.” This, she said, was possible through the exploration of the dynamics of things like the wind, psychology and energy. This statement resonated with me at each of the installations.

At the Salton Sea’s “A Point of View,” viewing platforms were constructed in a combination of pre-Colombian and brutalist architecture by Colombian-born, Paris-based artist Iván Argote, allowing visitors an elevated view of the landscape and an opportunity to communicate with each other. Messages in both Spanish and English are pressed into the concrete steps and change in meaning depending on whether they are read top to bottom or vice-versa.

The most enigmatic and environmentally friendly installation comes from Los Angeles-based Nancy Baker Cahill. The installation is actually in two locations which serve as gateways to the biennial: “Revolutions” is located near the windmills to the north, with “Margin of Error” at the Salton Sea to the south. They speak to the capturing of energy and the toxic results of human intervention in the natural order, respectively. These pieces are invisible to the naked eye and can only be viewed through a cell phone app called 4th Wall. (“Revolutions” had to be moved due to the Valentine’s Day flooding; watch the Desert X site and 4th Wall app for updates.)

Another installation with two locations is “Lover’s Rainbow” by Mexico City artist Pia Camil. Brightly painted rebar is used to construct identical arches—one in Rancho Mirage and the other across the invisible international border in Mexico. The only way to get the full experience of her work is to cross that border and view it from two perspectives.

My personal favorite comes from local artist Armando Lerma. “Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds 2019” is a mural painted on a water tower near an east valley landfill. The work is monumental in scale and utilizes iconography of the American Southwest to create a sacred site in a location usually thought of as utilitarian.

I met with Coachella native Lerma at his studio/gallery to discuss this work, his evolution as an artist, and his views of what Desert X means to the oft-neglected east end of our valley.

Lerma, born in 1975, grew up on a local ranch. His interest in art began early in childhood, as he spent hours going through the family's encyclopedia, looking at art to escape from the boredom. Running served the same purpose and fostered a deep appreciation of nature in general, and the desert in particular.

“I felt like an orphan culturally,” he said. “There were no artists (within) 10 years older than me. I had to begin my own journey to find out what art is.”

Lerma studied art in college and taught middle-school art for two years. He left the valley for a number of years but returned and started after-school art classes for local children at a church in Coachella. This led to the first art shows held in the city. With a group of friends, he created the first organized “Day of the Dead” celebrations there as well.

In 2012, Lerma purchased an abandoned building on Grapefruit Boulevard and began transforming it into his studio and events center. He’s currently working on his “Coachella Walls” project. It encourages and creates murals in his beloved hometown; one of these murals was featured in the first Desert X.

I asked him how he become involved in Desert X.

“Susan Davis was working at Sunnylands,” he said. “I went there to do a presentation of ‘Coachella Walls.’ Several months later, she contacted me and invited me to participate in her new project, Desert X. The whole purpose of ‘Coachella Walls’ was to bring people to a town they might never visit. It was a slow start. Desert X came around, and I started seeing a diverse group of people showing up. There was a new cultural exchange happening.”

I asked him about the process of creating his new work for Desert X 2019.

“The idea was already brewing,” he said. “I approached the city last year about painting a water tank. My original proposal was rejected, because the tank I selected was scheduled to be refurbished. The city offered me a different site. At first, I was hesitant. I didn’t like the location. The road leading to it was in bad shape, and it was next to the landfill. The city agreed to regrade the road.

“I began to change my mind. The new location was away from the city. There would be less pressure from people living near it about what I was doing. I could be more creative. It was elevated, and you could see the whole desert, the raw desert, from it.”

I noticed a small collection of bottles and small rocks at the base of the water tank.

“It is a shrine,” he said. “Those are objects I found while working on the mural. I've always had an interest in building altars. I was hoping that visitors would add their own pieces to it.”

There are many other compelling, thought-provoking, timely and perhaps controversial works of art to be experienced in this new incarnation of Desert X. It is impossible to see all of them in one day; even a two-day tour was far too rushed. I’ll be going back to revisit many of them.

Desert X 2019 is on display through Sunday, April 21. For more information visit desertx.org.

Published in Visual Arts

The Coachella Valley is home to many arts festivals—but the new Desert X is unlike any arts event ever done here before.

Desert X, short for the Desert Exhibition of Art, is a site-specific contemporary art exhibition, spread out throughout the Coachella Valley, from Feb. 25 through April 30. Artists contributing installations include Date Farmers’ owner Armando Lerma, Doug Aitken, Norma Jeane and many others.

The president of the Desert X board of directors is Susan Davis, the editorial director at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.

“It’s a valley-wide exhibition. A curator put together a list of artists who we invited to the desert to choose sites that specifically resonated in them,” Davis said. “They created works specific to those sites. There will be about 15 installations. One of them is up in Whitewater, and the farthest (east) are in Indio and Coachella. We will also have pieces in Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage as well. The pieces will be available to view for free for anyone who wants to visit or happens upon them.”

The Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs will serve as the Desert X headquarters.

“People will be able to get maps and get information, and we’ll be offering bus tours on Saturdays and Sundays,” Davis said.

Davis touted the wide reach of Desert X’s participants.

“These are all artists with international reputations who are in major museums throughout the world,” she said. “It’s very exciting. We’re working with a number of local cultural organizations who have become our program partners. We have the Palm Springs Art Museum. Sunnylands is going to host one of the pieces. (Local student film festival) Digicom has a number of students in the local schools who are using these pieces to create documentary films, and we’re working with Modernism Week. The parallel projects are projects that have been selected through a series of criteria and include things up in the High Desert as well as an exhibition at the Marks Center for the Arts at College of the Desert.”

Davis offered hints about what people can expect at the installations.

“In the case of the project that’s out in Palm Desert in Adams Park, Claudia Comte chose that location and created a piece that echoes the landscape,” Davis said. “The shape of the wall is from her standpoint and echoes the mountains and the landscape.

“Another artist, Jeffrey Gibson, whose piece is going to be in the sculpture garden at the (Palm Springs) Art Museum, was inspired by the windmills. He went through a process where he wanted his piece on the wind farms, but as it evolved, he realized that it would better speak to being in Palm Springs, because he’s a Native American and was very interested in the confluence in Palm Springs of Native Americans, the LGBT community and the alternative energy history. All of the artists have created pieces for those places specific to the ideas that resonated in them and influenced them.”

Davis said she had the idea for Desert X after attending biennials and big festivals in other cities.

“The purpose is to show off a city or an area as a cultural destination, and to highlight contemporary art simultaneously,” she said. “… After Hurricane Katrina, they had an exhibition every three years to bring people back to New Orleans to show that the city was growing back after the flood, and that it was a vibrant community. It was bringing people back, which was good for the economy and showcased contemporary art.

“I’ve been living in the valley for about seven years, and my background and my passion is contemporary art. … Contemporary art exhibitions could fill a vacuum here in the valley. (Visitors) come for a number of things, but not contemporary art. They certainly don’t come for art at all. I thought this would also shine a spotlight on the Palm Springs Art Museum and also shine a light on the cultural richness here in the Coachella Valley.”

Davis said she’s excited about the potential that Desert X has to show off the Coachella Valley to visitors and locals alike, using Comte’s work at Palm Desert’s Adams Park as an example.

“It’s a way for all of us who live here to see the desert through the lens of contemporary art,” she said. “From my standpoint, the exhibition has already been successful, because people have already interacted with Claudia Comte’s work and started asking questions: ‘Is it political?’ ‘Is it a mirage?’ ‘What’s it doing here?’ ‘Is it staying here?’ ‘This should be permanent.’ It starts a conversation, and that’s one thing.

“The second thing is there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who don’t have a clue where Adams Park is. It shines a light on a beautiful part of Palm Desert for its residents and the people in the Coachella Valley.”

Desert X takes place from Saturday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 30, with installations across the Coachella Valley. For more information, visit www.desertx.org. Below: Phillip K. Smith III's "The Circle of Land and Sky," Palm Desert; mirror polished stainless steel; 165 feet diameter by 10 feet high (rendering).

Published in Visual Arts