Outsider art is intended as a term denoting particular circles and scenes of art production, but I like to think of it in terms of art that is literally outside. Like Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, or Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, I enjoy the journey necessary to see outsider art, more than the artists’ detachment from any particular school, method, or medium. Out in the desert, or in the areas of LA where “most people don’t go” (except the people who live there, of course) art can exist apart from the institutions and gallery spaces that enable and sustain certain modes of production. Noah Purifoy’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum has aspects of this, although the artist himself was no outsider. Purifoy was on the California Arts Council for many years, and cofounder of the Watts Towers Art Center located next to Rodia’s work in South Central Los Angeles. There is a similar aesthetic visible in the hundreds of sculptures that live in the lots of Purifoy’s museum–the re-purposing of otherwise “garbage” materials into amalgams of creative shapes and textures, the building of mammoth, unuseable structures in a place where most architecture is distinguished by its indistinguishable monotony and utilitarian invisibleness.
But for me it is the journey that allies these types of work. They are out of sight, purposefully off the main road, because that is where the artists could find the space in which to work. They are constructed from material had at hand in these particular areas, salvaged from what is available. When driving out to the Outdoor Museum, one sees any number of pieces of trash along the desert roadside, scattered across a terrain where land is cheap, but the proper processing and recycling of material is not. In the twisted barbed wire fence of barely arable range land, one finds sheet plastic, shredded copper wire, discarded home appliances, and the everpresent unusable tires. One finds these items in Purifoy’s work as well, but here the items are gathered together, as if at a local dump. In the backs of the lot piles of old cafeteria trays gather dust and weeds, and the viewer is uncertain if they are meant to be a sculpture as is, if they were a sculpture that has fallen apart, or if they were a sculpture meant to be, designed in Purifoy’s head but not built by his hand.
It is that head and hand that changes the material gathered here, not just collected by time in the windbreak of a fence or in the gravity pit of a desert wash. The artist built these things, from trash it may be, but directing his effort to build upwards, not just collect outwards. The structures tower overhead, even the deliberate precariousness of a broken bridge over a pit of rebar signal that this was a place where someone worked, carefully, for years, attempting to shape the experience of the visitor who took the time to venture into the harsh desert and find it.
And with the journey that one makes “outside” to visit such work, one feels allied in the effort to escape, to shape one’s own experience for the better by venturing off the interstate and attempting to discover the work that someone else had done, long ago. It is archeology, as much as architecture, that draws one out to the Mojave desert to puzzle over the delicious, derelict majesty of Purifoy’s work. In June of this year, the LA County Museum of Art will temporarily move some of Purifoy’s work from the desert to their expansive urban campus. It is good that his work will gain the wider audience that the museum provides. But it will not be the same, out of the desert, and into the city.