Art scholars roam American West
Land Arts of the American West classes take place in a pair of heavy-duty Ford vans or wherever the vans and the camping gear they carry end up stopping during a 7,000-mile, two-month drive.
The New York Times
LUBBOCK, Texas — Native son Buddy Holly aside, Lubbock, a small city on the tableland of the southern Great Plains, has never had a lot to recommend it, culturally or aesthetically. When Coronado passed through in the 16th century, he described an acute sense of European disorientation as his men struggled to plot a course across a place "with no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea."
These days, there is still "a lot of land but nowhere to go," as the artist Donald Judd observed of West Texas. So there may be few better bases of operation for an unusual academic program that has taken root in the past two years. It's a program in which scholars study and make art in places about as far away from museums and galleries — and from bathrooms, decent beds and air conditioning — as is possible within the continental United States.
Called Land Arts of the American West, the classes take place in a pair of heavy-duty Ford vans or wherever the vans and the camping gear they carry end up stopping during a 7,000-mile, two-month drive. A handful participate, mostly architecture graduate and undergraduate students, but also artists, art historians and students recruited from other disciplines.
The tangible result of the trip is an annual exhibition of art, writing and other documentary material about the journey; this year's show, by the seven students and artists who traveled in fall 2010, was displayed in a Lubbock gallery near Texas Tech University, which runs the program.
But the heart of the program exists on the road, where it has found common ground with a growing number of idiosyncratic, environment-focused art initiatives like it that have sprung up in the West during the past several years: quasi collectives such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation, based in Los Angeles; the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno; and in San Francisco, the For-Site Foundation, which describes itself as "art about place" and conducts a residency program in the Sierra, Nev., foothills outside the gold-mining town of Nevada City, Calif.
The Lubbock program is directed by Chris Taylor, a Harvard-trained architecture professor who helped develop the concept, along with an artist, Bill Gilbert, who has run an initiative with the same name and similar concerns at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, since 2000. Taylor moved his program two years ago from the University of Texas, Austin, to Texas Tech, which puts him and his students at the eastern edge of a huge swath of territory — southwestern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada — that he has made his classroom.
Many of the stops along the trip are expected, the legacies of the land-art and Earthworks movement that transplanted the idea of sculpture to the country's trackless open spaces beginning in the 1960s:
• Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," off the shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, Utah.
• Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field," in western New Mexico.
• Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels," in northwestern Utah.
• Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," two deep trenches cut into the edge of a mesa in the Nevada desert.
But there are other stops, some requiring close observation of the odometer in places so remote that GPS maps are of little use.
Students have spent time near one of the world's largest open-pit uranium mines, now inactive, on the Laguna Pueblo reservation west of Albuquerque. They have camped on a desolate patch of New Mexico desert land called Cabinetlandia, owned by the art magazine Cabinet, wedged between an active rail line and screaming traffic on Interstate 10, where there is little more in the way of amenities than a mailbox and a filing-cabinet community "library" embedded in a concrete-and-soil wall.
"It might be one of the worst places on the face of the earth to try to inhabit — to try to be stationary while everything else is only there for a moment, moving through at high speed," recalled Meredith James, a New York sculptor and video artist who participated in the field trip in 2009, when she was a graduate art student at Yale.
The campers that year tried to re-imagine the roar from the highway as the roar of the surf, and they set up beach chairs along the road. But after only a couple of days on the land, they became so encrusted with dirt and grime that they had to drive to Deming, N.M., nearby and wash in the sinks of a coin-operated laundry.
The program operates on a shoestring budget of about $30,000, provided by participants' fees and some money from private donors. Taylor describes it as a "semester abroad in our own backyard," and said he planned it to try to be as agnostic about the definition of art as the vast landscape itself.
"I define art as anything people have done on the land," he said, adding that the West is an ideal place for such an approach. ("Arid lands are unable to hold secrets," Taylor once wrote.)
He added: "I think there are important lessons here that are more than just art-history lessons. Not to take anything away from art history, but this is more broadly about how we've shaped the land, and how it has shaped us."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.