Palm Springs, California—the town that Sonny Bono built—looks to be a fine place for desert road cycling, not that I’ve done much of that in my four days here. This holiday has been about hiking, and the place to do that in these parts is Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour’s drive north of the Coachella Valley, in what the locals call “high desert.”
And high, it truly is, in more ways than one. It’s uphill all the way from Palm Springs, and the temperature up at Joshua is generally between 12-15 degrees cooler. But the vibe up at Joshua Tree is totally chill too. The little town by the park’s main entrance feels like a different planet from Palm Springs. It’s a combination of tourist traps, artist studios, hippy retro shops, espresso joints run by long-bearded hipsters, and an assortment of sun-baked Burning Man-types.
It was up at Joshua that I took this photo of one of Noah Purifoy’s art assemblages. Prior to a couple of days ago, I’d never heard of Noah Purifoy. But a mysterious woman in a hot tub urged us to visit the Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage and Sculpture (ODAMAS) just north of Joshua Tree. And I now know why. The ODAMAS is a bizarre place—freaky, really—but fascinating and pure high desert.
Purifoy was born in Alabama in 1917 and worked as an industrial arts teacher and social worker, served in the war, and took several university degrees before devoting himself full-time to his art in the late 1950s. He is credited with redefining African American artistic consciousness, most famously through his assemblage sculpture exhibit “66 Signs of Neon,” inspired by the Watts Rebellion in LA in 1965. In 1989, he moved to Joshua Tree, where, until his death in 2004, he worked away at filling a 10-acre expanse of desert with his assemblages.
Walking around the ODAMAS is a creepy/fun experience. Although the place is now run by a foundation, there’s no-one actually on site; visitors just drop a donation in a box and freely wander the site. It feels like a combination of abandoned art installation, archeological site, ghost town, and mad genius’s open-air laboratory. The day we went we were the only humans there, but the place felt strangely inhabited by something.
Certain objects and themes keep popping up in the various assemblages—lots of toilets (stacked, smashed, piled); mannequins, often decapitated and/or dissolving from sun/wind; and ghoulish parodies of cozy domestic spaces that often have the feel of bricolage torture chambers. Some of the pieces are weirdly funny; others are just messed up. You get the sense that Purifoy was gifted and disturbed; witty and angry; prophetic and tormented.
Given Purifoy’s penchant for using every day material stuff in his art, it’s not surprising that bicycles and bicycle parts figure prominently in some of the assemblages. This piece that caught my eye features a kind of post-apocalyptic choo-choo train of bike buggies—think Who-ville contraption meets Mad Max.
Just as the desert moonscape of Joshua Tree park can feel like an alien landscape, as if giants used it as a playground, plopping jumbo rocks here and mega-piles of small rocks there, so too can Purifoy’s pieces evoke an otherworldliness. These bike assemblages feel like Twilight Zone playthings for extra-terrestrial children. Their mix of foreignness and innocence matches the vibe of Joshua Tree itself. No wonder Purifoy felt at home in the high desert.