Go West into the Desert

Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- The Palms, a roadhouse tavern set back from the highway in the vast, minimalist starkness of this patch of desert-country California, is an unexpected place for a Cincin

Nov 3, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Twentynine Palms, Calif. — The Palms, a roadhouse tavern set back from the highway in the vast, minimalist starkness of this patch of desert-country California, is an unexpected place for a Cincinnati art collector to be a center of attraction on a Saturday night.

Yet as Andy Stillpass walks through the crowded tavern and adjoining music room, where a combo played an instrumental version of "Ode to Billie Joe," artists and arts supporters kept greeting him by name. They asked when he'd arrived in this remote area, about three hours southeast of Los Angeles, and how much art he'd seen since getting here.

That's because Stillpass comes here in late October every year for the High Desert Test Sites, a weekend exhibition of experimental outdoor art designed to erode with time. It's in the spirit of the ephemeral environmental art of an Andy Goldsworthy, say, with a touch of Burning Man Festival-like celebration to it.

Stillpass helped artists Andrea Zittel and Lisa Auerbach and art dealers John Connelly and Shaun Caley Regen establish this event in 2002.

"Andrea had this idea and I thought, 'Gee, I want to be a part of it.' She had property for it, but not enough," Stillpass says, relaxing with a hard-earned beer (The Palms had but one overtaxed bartender) just outside the establishment's front entrance.

Stillpass bought 100 acres of undeveloped land, reachable via dirt roads above the community of Pioneertown, to be used as a locale for High Desert Test Sites. Known as Andy's Gamma Gulch Site, it has magnificent vistas of the spare and lonesome yet expansive and free surrounding territory.

"I'd never bought property before just to show art," he says.

Stillpass, an Indian Hills resident and 1967 Walnut Hills High School graduate who studied art history at the University of Chicago, is surprised that a Cincinnati newspaper knows about his California activities. Until selling it several years ago, he owned Stillpass Motors.

Although he served a term on the board of the Contemporary Arts Center, he's not a high-profile arts patron in his hometown. He did try to interest Cincinnati museums in a similar event several years ago, but to no avail.

High Desert Test Sites has grown since its inception and this year used 16 different sites. It's both a fun and an intellectually challenging occasion, based in the rugged hills and high-desert communities just north of Joshua Tree National Park.

Viewers needed maps to drive from place to place, scavenger-hunt-style, in search of art. There were also performances, such as a marionette show at the spectacularly mysterious outsider-art "village" built from recycled materials by the late Noah Purifoy in Joshua Tree.

Seven artists, including two collaborative teams, created work for Stillpass' land. Some artworks were as simple as wrapping a Joshua tree with Target-store bags; others were far more complicated and seemingly designed to last longer.

The standout piece was a sleekly industrial outdoor water station built by artist Tao Urban. It was at once a gracious act and a humorous one, as under normal circumstances very few people would traverse this property. But if anyone should, water will be waiting.

Before coming to High Desert Test Sites, Stillpass spent a day at the Robert Smithson retrospective at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. Smithson, a pioneer of environmental art, created pieces that availed themselves of entropy; their continued existence was at the mercy of changes in their surroundings, like life itself.

His most famous work, "Spiral Jetty," until recently was long submerged below the high waters of Utah's Great Salt Lake. He died at age 35 in a 1973 plane crash, but his legacy, as well as the importance of land-based art, has only grown.

"He's totally brilliant," Stillpass says. "He works on so many levels. He's like a Michelangelo for our times."

And Smithson's work was Stillpass' chief inspiration for supporting High Desert Test Sites.

"I'm really interested in alternative ways for showing art, something less commercial than galleries and fresher than museums," he says.

He's certainly found a good place, way out here in the California desert — even if it is a long way from Cincinnati.

Steven Rosen is a contributing writer for CityBeat. His most recent feature was an interview with Japanese director Takashi Shimizu and Hollywood producer Sam Raimi on The Grudge.