Land—its substance and usage—will always be controversial, particularly in the American West. The notion of the West—and more pointedly the Mojave region of Southern Nevada as an open expanse providing substrate for any number of human endeavors—is a deeply entrenched one. In Modern Desert Markings, 10 artists explore the history of contemporary landscape marking in Southern Nevada through the lens of land art.
In this exhibition, commentary varies. There is of course much to be said on the settler colonial history of Southern Nevada and its relationship to the blank-canvas perception of the desert by historically prominent land artists like Jean Tinguely and Michael Heizer. The exhibition is masterful in its multi-lensed approach to deconstructing the functions of art within the landscape.
Of the many impressive works, Emily Budd’s vision of reconstructive queer futures in the work “Digging Machine (for and End of the World)” stands out as a striking work of assemblage and a nuanced commentary on the destructive forces of our cultural engines and the need to reconstruct from the detritus viable progressions through time. Marisa J. Futernick builds tone through temporality in the form of a slide show highlighting the shifting locations and experiences through a narrated slideshow, a catalog of region and emotion.
Jen Urso’s “What the desert already has” provides a masterful rebuke of more extraction-based land art practices, highlighting the flora both native and invasive to Michale Heizer’s Double Negative in two grow tanks potted with the landmark’s seed and soil. Keva Lough speaks to impositions on the Landscape: “I wanted my mark making to be virtual. My way of mark making is optical rather than physical [a thread through most of her work]. The mark is not embedded, it is placed visually. I want to make the marks be the trail left behind of my thought process. But they are also physical in a way.” Through analog collage placed in digital format, Lough layers the written history over the terrain of Southern Nevada incorporating selections from scans of reports and scientific data, proposals for a monument to dissuade visitors the Yucca Mountain site. Lough is keen to show us the preconceived colonial notions that can be held in landscape.
Michael Dax Icovone documents his body’s relations to time and space with six miles of twine in a dialogue with De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece. He relays the act of generation work in the landscape excellently through his video. Nicholas b jacobsen highlights the West’s manufactured emptiness in the diorama forum, miniaturizing the genocidal colonial practices that made the concept of the West as vacant an acceptable conversation for land artists to engage. With three works all thougrouly conversant, Jacobsen’s poignant statement on the erasure of native cultures and communities holds a deep resonance. Adriana Chavez’s whimsical approach to the conundrum that land art presents myopic focus on broad landscapes winnowing the conversion to chosen perceptual points instead of directing greater interpretations. “Rift on Rift” by Paula Jacoby-Garrett is a leave no trace approach to land art. Using insulation material and landscape cloth, she provides a striking series of images that linger on the landscape only as long as the artist desires. Rachelle Reichert drawing the satellite image of her visit to Jean Dry Lake Bed is captivating as an act of mark making on mark making, with the incorporation of new ways to document the structure of the earth. Exceptional draftsmanship aside, “Artist at Jean Dry Lake Bed December 9, 2022,” and its companion piece “Jean Dry Lake Squared” create a subtle balancing act between lived experience, sculpture, and the land. Mark Brest van Kempen redefines “Las Vegas Piece” by documenting the botanical growth that has now completely subsumed the work, in a tribute to the land’s recovery from and indifference to human intrusion.
In all, MDM is a thought-provoking study of land use and interpretation through truly generative dialogs about land art. Is a beautiful exercise in how we carry ideas forward and prevent them from stagnating. The collective and individual bodies of work give terrific insight into ways we can view something as majestic and abiding as the desert.
Modern Desert Markings: An Homage to Las Vegas Area Land Art closes July 8 at the Barrick Museum at UNLV.
Cover photo: Paula Jacoby-Garrett, “Riff on Rift,” 2023, image courtesy of the artist