Review: Why a sculptural train wreck is worth celebrating

The wind was howling, blowing thick clouds of sand into the local hair on the edge of Palm Springs on the opening day of Desert X 2023, the fourth installment of the recently commissioned biennial Coachella Valley art fair. (Neville Wakefield and Diana Campbell are the curators.) At moments during the nearly half-mile drive to the craggy site of Matt Johnson’s massive sculpture, “Sleeping Figure,” from a dusty parking lot just off I-10 near the palm springs turn off highway 111, it was hard to stand up. The sturdy sculpture, however, did not budge an inch.

Twelve salvaged rail freight cars are welded securely in place, end to end and, in some places, stacked high. The top forms are a surprise for a human body lying loosely on the rocky field. It is a pastoral of industrial power, the artistic genre that signaled humanity’s dominance over nature.

Here, however, the dramatic gesture is more ambiguous. The Magnificent Colossus takes on the mythologies of land art unique to the West over the past half century, celebrating and challenging the illustrious legacy of artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt and Walter De Maria, whose monumental sculptures they are found in remote desert locations from Utah to New Mexico. And it artfully raises the burning issue that has plagued Desert X since 2019. That’s when the organizers, apparently indifferent to the state-run assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, unfortunately forged a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, the vicious and oppressive absolute monarchy where free speech is illegal.

This arrangement seriously damaged the biennale’s reputation. Prominent Desert X board members resigned in protest, including artist Ed Ruscha, who for decades had a getaway in nearby Pioneertown. Despite the outcry, the pact led to two exhibitions in the Saudi Arabian desert, the most recent in 2022.

Matt Johnson, “Sleeping Figure (detail),” 2023, mixed media.

(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

“Sleeping Figure” isn’t just the most compelling entry in the biennale’s current iteration, an otherwise bland affair of a dozen works, few of which reward the significant effort to see them. (Be prepared for a 50-mile trek to reach all 12 locations, most scattered between Desert Hot Springs and the Palm Desert and in the same locations as previous years’ projects.) Of the 59 orders generated by the release of the series in 2017, Johnson’s sculpting is among the best.

The composition of freight cars rising and falling echoes the steep beautiful backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains. Its visual slam-bang build-up plays against a long, steady stream of freight trains rolling behind it, day and night, on a constructed river that carries tons of cargo from the port of Los Angeles to distribution centers in the east. Disasters like last month’s toxic freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, inevitably, if coincidentally, come to mind, as does the historic combination of astonishing prosperity and shameful destruction that railroads brought to the building of America.

Unexpectedly, given the vast sculptural materials and their social history, the rise and fall of the figures create a light, airy, porous reclining body, its head resting on an arm at the end of a supported arm, while one leg is crossed. the other. Given a typical 50- or 60-foot boxcar length, the behemoth spans nearly two-thirds the span of a football field.

It is not the first such composition of the artist. Six years ago, for example, Johnson, who works in Los Angeles, made a similar figure for a table. The limbs and torso of this witty sculpture are carved and painted to resemble conservative loaves of bread. “Take, eat,” boldly suggests the cigar-roasting bread figure. “This is my body.”

A reclining humanoid figure, holding aloft a cigar, is carved to look as if it is made of loaves of bread.

Matt Johnson, “Bread Figure (Reclining),” 2017, carved wood and paint.

(Bloom & Poe)

The recumbent body made of freight cars is genderless, although usually in art a recumbent figure is female. Think various voluptuous, sleeping Venuses by Titian or Giorgione, boring nudes that look like an exquisite Playboy renaissance centerpiece designed for the private gratification of an inevitably male patron. Édouard Manet gave a modern jolt to the tradition by juxtaposing a naked woman with some clothed men picnicking in a wooded park for his “Lunch on the Grass” painting, and sitting the naked sex worker in “Olympia” upright on a chaise longue. , looking at the viewer.

Ingres and Matisse transformed the recumbent body into an odalisque, dressing their women in transparent harem pants and silk turbans, adorning them with ornate peacock feather fans. The reclining female nude was stereotyped as “exotic,” a patronizing Orientalist motif fueled by the aggressive Near Eastern exploits of 19th-century European colonial powers. They had to seize it, like foreign territory, subject it to the wishes of a greater power.

Johnson’s “Sleeping Figure” is a freight odalisque, clothed in Orientalist elements of corporate Asia heralded by prominent brand names painted on the sides of rail containers—Hyundai, Dongfang, Zim, China Shipping and others. The gender ambiguity of the sculpture ingrains our habit of projecting comforting female features onto the landscape—think Mother Nature—a habit we give ourselves permission to exploit. In a globalizing world, who knows who is exploiting whom?

Johnson’s reclining metal torso, pierced with holes and placed in a real landscape, also recalls the primordial bones of Henry Moore’s bronzes scattered across the Hertfordshire countryside in Britain. Moore’s organic shapes are transformed into minimalist boxes, updating a romantic sculptural heritage into something akin to a Hasbro transformer. Johnson’s composition, regardless of all this tone, feels almost like a game, as if it were made by a child playing with blocks.

Check out the figure’s head: It features a rudimentary face defined by an angled slash for a mouth, topped off by a pair of painted bows for closed eyes. The pictogram is a clever cross between two Unicode digital signs – the arcs indicating sleep, the slash indicating confusion. The “sleep of reason” is turned into an emoji. Mechanical forms collide with digital fictions to compose a corporate odalisque now in bed with the vast “Oriental” wealth of Saudi criminals. Civilization overshadows nature, despite the wild and rugged desert environment.

Johnson’s collapse introduces a nagging question mark to the very idea of ​​mammoth works of art. They’re filled with boy toys meant to last an eternity, like Heizer’s “City” minimalist temple complex, which recently opened to accommodate six visitors a day (at $150 a pop) in remote Nevada, or James’ majestic sky Turrell observatory on an extinct volcano at the edge of Arizona’s painted desert, still unfinished after more than 40 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

As an emblem for Desert X and the decadent embrace of Saudi thugs, a train wreck of orientalism is hard to beat. Johnson’s ‘Sleeping Figure’ steals the show. And when was the last time land art made you laugh out loud?

Desert X 2023 is available throughout the Coachella Valley through May 7th. Maps and application information are available on the fair website,

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