Thursday, November 8, 2012

Outdoor Art in Death Valley

The town of Rhyolite, NV, had been virtually abandoned since 1919, so this town that had deteriorated to the point of reaching "ghost town" status (with a population barely into double figures) seemed a most unlikely place for an outdoor art museum.

Yet there it was. The Goldwell Open Air Museum.
The Museum came about in 1984 when Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski selected Rhyolite as the location for his next work because of the resemblance of the Mojave Desert to the deserts of the Middle East.

“Jim Spencer, Rhyolite’s ‘mayor,’ granted Szukalski permission to put his sculptures in the town, partially because he hoped that this would be the start of an art colony" (Sceurman, Moran, Oesterle, and Cridland, Weird Las Vegas and Nevada).

And so Death Valley became the site of Szukalski's The Last Supper.

Szukalski created the "ghostly" shrouded figures by wrapping live models in fabric soaked in wet plaster, posing them, and refining the drapery. When the plaster set, the models slipped out, leaving the rigid shroud that surrounded them.

Our first reaction was one of admiration for the artist's creativity. This reaction was followed by a profound wonderment. The "figures" had a more meaningful impression than if people had been portrayed in the shrouds.
Goldwell exists because artists from all over the world chose, and still choose, the Mojave Desert as a place to make work freely, in contrast with their practice in Europe. Those experiences led several of them to create the large scale, on-site sculptures that define Goldwell as a destination. There are few other places where such art-making activities could have taken place; the desert is integral to their work.

Using cinderblocks, Hugo Heyrman created the 25-foot-tall Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada (1992), which refers to Greek sculpture presented in the highly technological world of the 21st century.

Sofie Siegmann created Sit Here (2000) for an artist-in-residence project for a museum in Las Vegas. It was rescued in 2007, lovingly restored, and re-envisioned at Goldwell in 2007.

Shorty Harris was a legendary prospector, credited with discovering gold and beginning the abbreviated, but exhilirating, life of the town of Rhyolite (see yesterday's entry). The Tribute to Shorty Harris (1994) was created by Fred Bervoets.

One explanation for the inclusion of the penguin is that it represents the artist, who felt “as incongruous in the desert as an Antarctic bird.”

Another work by Albert Szukalski is the Ghost Rider (1984).

Representing a female counterpoint to the Greek myth of Icarus, Dre Peeters' Icara (1992) stands at the entrance to the open air museum.

As we drove down the lane to the Museum, the memory of art in the desert lingered.

(Information contained here was obtained from the Goldwell Open Air Museum's brochure,, and

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