History in the Making: Noah Purifoy at LACMA
Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
June 7 to September 27, 2015
5905 Wilshire Boulevard (at South Fairfax Avenue)
Los Angeles, 323 857 6000
California is a great place to incubate, lending itself to a slower pace where its more contemplative residents may think and create amid beautiful landscape and sunshine, Noah Purifoy spent the last 15 years of his life creating sculptures and installations in the desert around Joshua Tree, California. His body of work, namely assemblage of locally found objects, offers a unique Mojave Desert experience that is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The title of the show, “Junk Dada,” serves as an insight to Purifoy’s work as it finds aesthetic, contextual relatives to artists who were known for turning menial objects/readymades into profound statements, while simultaneously referring to the homophonous “junk data.” His assemblage The Last Supper II (1989), for instance, consists of old, rusted silverware and sardine cans arranged neatly in a frame. The title and earth tone composition transforms the pieces of refuse into something meaningful, or possibly holy. Like a still life, each component of once-used material is a unit of data that tells us something about being in a certain place and time, but also transcends its fractured nature to become something new and unified. Purifoy doesn’t simply repurpose objects; one can sense the history of the silverware and sardine cans the way old photographs and antiques are haunted. Because of this, there is something morbidly nostalgic, yet beautiful in using dead things to create. The meticulous arrangement of photos, pigments, a skull, and various objects in The Summer of 1965 (1996), for example, holds the tension of a mysterious spell, every object a vital component to its potency.
Walking through the exhibition, it is easy to imagine the home of many of the works: Joshua Tree is a vast and strange landscape where the eerie silence overwhelms. It takes someone with a strong intellect to thrive in such solitude and Purifoy’s work is a reflection of such an experience. There is a toughness in his creations, but there is also at times a lighthearted sense of humor. His piece Ode to Frank Gehry (1999) is as hokey as it is architectural. Perhaps it speaks to the complete and bittersweet nature of existence — that what constitutes its tragedy is also what makes it comic. It also says something about the power of imagination: Don Quixote’s windmills in the desert come to mind looking at this piece.
Purifoy created his own atlas of fetishes and imagery. Whether a given piece is a politically charged collage, a wooden sculpture, or a textile assemblage, they all point to something central in his work: his sense of humanity. The viewer feels the love of material and handiwork in Rags and Old Iron I & II (1989), through the decisive arrangement of beads and textiles, which compel us with a mystical simplicity. In three mixed-media paintings hung together — Picket Fence, Four Horsemen, and Crucifixion (all 1993) — black and gray cubes float together over a white, textured ground and form coarse, charming symbols. They hold the mystery of an ambiguous tarot card reading yet one senses that they are but honest renderings made form observation.
In an age of single-use materials and computer-fabricated objects, Noah Purifoy’s work holds relevance in that the spirit cannot be stripped from art — that making things with one’s own hands and cherishing the materials and process of creation will always be magical.