“TV Indians,” 2017, by Cara Romero; archival print, 39 by 60 inches, edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Blue Rain Gallery.

Recent years have seen a new trend in California migration. About a quarter-million residents moved to the Inland Empire and areas east to the Arizona border in 2020, with thousands of households relocating to the desert. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast and arid unincorporated lands lured in newcomers, seemingly offering peace, health and space.

But such resettling can have consequences, as the story of Zzyzx, Calif., reminds us.

What was once the site of a natural spring system that supported Indigenous cultures for generations was transformed into a commercialized “oasis” health resort in the 1940s. It purported to offer products and services with many healing benefits, driving an influx of people to the desert in search of healing.

But the owner, Curtis Springer, was eventually jailed for fraud-related crimes, according to the National Park Service.

Zzyzx (Zye-zix) is now the home of the California State University Desert Studies Center. Its exit sign off Interstate 15 is a curious reminder of how the Mojave Desert has been used, for better or worse—and it’s now the inspiration for a new curated exhibit that brings together some of the desert’s most prolific artists.

Zzyzx Redux, curated by Bernard Leibov of BoxoPROJECTS, explores the history of this remote and often-overlooked corner of the desert. It’s one of a handful curated spaces to be featured at this year’s Intersect Palm Springs, formerly Art Palm Springs, slated for a 2022 return from Feb. 10-13 at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Zzyzx, per Leibov, “demonstrates the full cycle of modern Southern Californian desert history: from Indigenous trade route; to gold rush era federal fort; to railroad outpost; to a much-hyped health resort; and finally an environmental research station. These cycles have spurred optimism, creative development, and new technologies as well as related aspects of dislocation, exploitation and environmental damage.”

Leibov, the founder and director of the residency and programming initiative BoxoPROJECTS in Joshua Tree, told the Independent he hopes the exhibit will inspire questions regarding the sustainability of the current land rush.

“There’s a perceived sense that the desert is so big and it’s so endless, we can keep developing it,” he said. “But we’re drawing down and stressing out a lot of resources.”

Using Zzyzx as the point of inspiration for this story came from Leibov’s own drive on Interstate 15, when he considered the parallels of how people came to the desert seeking health benefits during the pandemic—and how such migrations can affect the existing community, with a recent wave of rent hikes causing displacement.

“How sustainable is all of this?” he said.

The exhibit brings together paintings, sculpture and photography from some of the region’s most prolific artists, including Blake Baxter, Diane Best, Ryan Campbell, Gerald Clarke Jr., Sofia Enriquez, Kim Manfredi, Carlos Ramirez, Cara Romero, Aili Schmeltz, Ryan Schneider, Phillip K. Smith III and Kim Stringfellow.

“Flat Torus—Variant 5:4,” 2020, by Phillip K. Smith III; acrylic, plywood, LED lighting, electronic components and unique color program, four of 10 unique variants, 57 minutes, 26 by 26 by 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Art Collective.

The works touch on light, space, architecture, nature and lifestyle in a conscious, clear-eyed way—from Romero’s striking print of Indigenous residents posed in front of old-school TVs, to one of Smith’s hypnotic and mesmerizing Flat Torus in the smallest size he’s done yet.

Works shown at Intersect Palm Springs will be for sale at the show, as well as online at Artsy.net through March 3. Clarke, Ramirez and Stringfellow will discuss their works and the exhibit at noon, Saturday, Feb. 12, in a panel moderated by Palm Springs Life editor-in-chief Steven Biller.

Leibov said that he hopes the Zzyzx Redux exhibit will inspire thoughtfulness about how we treat the land around us, and how we respect those who have been here long before us.

Or, as he succinctly puts it: “History is long. Memory is short. Art reminds us.”

Intersect Palm Springs will kick off with an opening-night preview from 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 10, and continue from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 11; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 12 and 13, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros. Tickets range from $25 for a one-day pass to $100 for an all-access pass. For tickets or more information, visit intersectpalmsprings.com.

Melissa Daniels

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...