accidental desert dweller : loneliness, transcendentalism, mundanity & Agnes Pelton

It was an accident that I found the exhibit. I knew the museum was there, and was using it as a mile marker on my run, actually - but figured it was closed. However, on Wednesday nights from 5 - 9 PM it is free and open to the public (or $5 if you would like to see the special exhibit.) I didn’t have anything on me but my hotel key card and phone, but figured that the gallery would have plenty else to offer, and it did.

I stood at the entrance of the Agnes Pelton exhibit, squinting in, hoping the attendant would just let me in. He didn’t get the hint and I don’t mind paying for art sometimes, so I wandered the gallery’s permanent collection for a bit, and found a spot upstairs that allowed me to see her exhibit with slightly more clarity. I figured I would come back next week, when I travel to Phoenix again for work.

On the way out, I noticed the gallery attendant had changed, and started asking questions about how long Pelton’s work would be up etc. and how often the gallery was open late. We had a good conversation, and this attendant did take the hint: she gave me her ID and told me to take it to the front desk and ask for a free ticket to the special exhibit. Goofy smile on my face, I loped up to the front desk and pretended to be this very kind woman’s sister-in-law. The proper admissions sticker pinned to my sweaty shirt, I breezed into the exhibit and got as close as I could to all of the paintings, involuntarily “ehhhhooohhh”ing at many of them. Like a real creep.

Anyhow, here are some terrible, sloppy photos I took of Agnes Pelton’s work from the Desert Transcendentalist exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. I could simply grab clean images of these paintings from the internet, but then how else would you know how crookedly I love to capture things :

Another mostly unknown spiritually engaged modernist who was clearly a contemporary of O’Keefe and potentially Hilma af Klint (knowingly or not - I haven’t done my homework.) I am especially geeked to have found it by accident on a run in the desert night where it was inexplicably raining giant fat rain drops (??) I was running because it’s something I pick up from time to time, and also I had been feeling a bit lonely.

The desert is an accidental place. By that I mean - it is not somewhere I saw myself working, living, loving, experiencing. I’ve been an “ocean person” (yes I’m ROLLING MY EYES AT MYSELF.) But it’s also not somewhere that feels easy or possible to access without careful consideration, preparation.

A few years ago work brought me to Phoenix and Mesa, originally - and an uneasy attraction grew. Work continues to bring me here, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. So much of the area is sprawl : Bare and ugly, superimposed with human trash and pain. Superficial ideas of beauty are pasted over the sublime. Creosote, giant saguaro and the Superstition Mountains rise behind sun bleached parking lots. Strip malls with failing businesses that only look habitable, not welcoming. The landscape evokes boredom, even. Which for me leads to loneliness.

Turn on network television and watch COPS - I promise you’ll witness a sad situation unfolding in Mesa, AZ soon enough. The desert lures me because it does shine and vibrate, but it is difficult to hold. You get close. Are you there yet? Are you in it? Get on the ground, watch for poison and spiny plants or animals. Watch for fangs and carcasses and high rocks that drop off suddenly. Are you there? The desert is poor and rich and arid. The desert refuses predictability. The desert wants to absorb you (me.) It feels as though being a visitor, I could never come to understand it, which really is just an invitation to try. Whatever it means to me, I do long to take up residency in all things especially open, challenging and beautiful. Unexpectedly, the desert may have (a part of) me.

The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.
— Agnes Pelton on living in Cathedral City, CA