It is not hard to imagine why the West is so romanticized. It is the great West of John Steinbeck, of Jack Kerouac’s bumbling journey across the belly of America. It is the Wild West of our forefathers, discovered by pioneers sloughing toward the promise of new discovery and a richer existence so many years ago.
We paint our own fantasies of adventure on the wonders of that expansive part of the country. The Grand Canyon – that great chasm splitting four states – draws its intrigue as much from the sheer scientific wonder it generates as from its impregnable monolithic beauty. When we view it with our contemporary eyes, we wonder anew what it would have felt like to be among the first to stumble upon its hulking mass – armed with neither the knowledge nor understanding of the limitlessness of the universe compared to mankind’s miniscule pioneering existence.
The Southwest has always been seen as the land of opportunity. The act of moving westward has been associated with the promise of adventure and new beginnings throughout the ages. From the California gold rush of the 1840s and 50s to Dorothea Lange’s American Exodus of the 1930s and 40s, Americans have looked to the West as a source of new beginnings. Unlike our ancestors, we now know that nothing magic lies in the great Western “beyond” save for the westernmost coastline – the land simply tumbles abruptly into the sea; but for many, the west – particularly the southwestern corner of the country – still provides an inextinguishable wellspring of inspiration and mystery. Artists continue to be drawn to the stark, inhospitable beauty of the desert – Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos reads more like an unbound love letter to the American desertscape than an examining analysis, and even staunch east-coast dwellers like Georgia O’Keeffe ultimately sought transformation and enlightenment embedded in the southwestern landscape.
Our families before us marveled at the alien landscape of Utah’s rock formations and Southern California’s prehistoric flora from the windows of their station wagons on family vacation in the 1950s. Today, we take in the same rocky expanses through the viewfinders of our DSLR cameras and our iPhone screens, rooted in the present perhaps only in flesh. Technology has changed, and so has the way we experience the southwestern landscape. The Internet’s widespread proliferation of images of some of America’s most enchanting spaces has made this enigmatic part of the country essentially accessible to all. Why, then, do we continue to make our westward pilgrimages and vision quests? Perhaps we are seeking something that cannot be transported by an image, alone.
Artists, I believe, are among those who still seek transformation in the desert, but now rather than making work about it, we make our work from the messages we find hidden among the haunting stretches and sullen undulations of the landscape. For years, creative types have been drawn south to the otherworldly wasteland of Joshua Tree and TwentyNine Palms bordering the Mojave desert, or north to the arid emptiness of the mid-northwestern Nevada desert. The old American southwest is a site of greater social change, bearing the growing pains of an adolescent country faced with periods of economic strife. The new American southwest is a place of creative genesis, borne from the places where a rich and chronicled history has etched itself visibly into the timeworn face of the land.