By Jessica Holmes
The Brooklyn Rail
Noah Purifoy knew how to tell a great story. As anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in the Mojave Desert can attest, the impressive number of items he hauled out to the barren sands of Joshua Tree in order to fabricate a neighborhood of fascinating sculptures that the viewer can walk into, through, and around is a feat made even more thrilling by the sculptures themselves. Small shacks made of wood and corrugated metal, heaps of old television sets, a mini-amphitheater of wooden two-by-fours, and so much more can provide hours of intrigue under the blistering desert sun. Tilton Gallery, a stately townhouse on the Upper East Side, is perhaps the antithesis of the open wilderness, and the Purifoy sculptures on view are smaller and more contained, but the stories they imply are no less alluring.
Purifoy arrived in California by way of a Southern upbringing, followed by years spent in Cleveland laboring as a social worker. He moved west in the early sixties and attended Chouinard (now Cal Arts), and after graduating co-founded the Watts Towers Art Center just in the shadows of Simon Rodia’s architectural marvel in Los Angeles, in the heart of the Watts neighborhood. Very soon afterwards, the neighborhood erupted in the Watts Rebellion, six days of riots and civil unrest sparked by the police beating of a Black man after a traffic stop. In the wake of this uprising, Purifoy and his Arts Center cohort pulled burned and charred debris from the wreckage and began to assemble what became 66 Signs of Neon, an ever-changing and growing project of assemblage. Exhibited locally, then nationally, and internationally 66 Signs of Neon was a phoenix that rose from the ashes of the fractured neighborhood as a symbol of defiance, protest, and hope. “The objects of art jabbed the viewer low in the abdomen, squeezed his heart, pricked his mind,” Purifoy dictated to his friend Ted Michel, in a contemporaneous catalogue essay for the project.
The jabbing, squeezing, and pricking are omnipresent at Tilton Gallery, too. Purifoy’s political stance is never far. Hanging Tree (1990) is a mixed media work made mainly of cloth that loosely depicts a dangling corpse. All of the works here are made primarily of cloth and found objects attached to boards or canvas mounted on the wall so that they read as paintings. And though commentary on social strife is an element of Purifoy’s work, it’s not the sole element. These smaller-scaled works offer the viewer a glimpse into more interior worlds. Geometric works made entirely of wood, like The Door (1988) stand in contrast to the more unruly assemblages. Their relatively structured composition suggests that there is perhaps a narrative order even to Purifoy’s more unrestrained sculpture, albeit an unconventional order.
Joshua Tree (1993), made four years after Purifoy retired to the desert, is one such work. Across a mottled, painted surface, Purifoy attached a scattered assortment of items as diversified as a wooden fork, a bobble-knocker hair tie, and remnants of chicken wire. Up one side of the plane a “path” of wood is lined by painted colored blocks situated at an oblique angle, suggestively encouraging the viewer to tilt inward towards its course. For anyone who has ever gazed into the desert horizon of Joshua Tree, and felt the tug of the possibility of walking out among the alien trees only to never return, this uncanny feeling makes sense.
Because there is so much to take in, it’s beneficial to consider Purifoy’s work in slow or repeated viewings. On a second pass by Rags & Old Iron I (after Nina Simone) (1989) two small etchings embedded within the piece that I seemingly overlooked suddenly came into focus. Titled Little Boatyard Venice and Point Mugu in their respective lower left-hand corners and depicting seaside scenes of a more rustic California, the etchings were both signed by the early stage and film legend Lionel Barrymore, who originally trained as an artist before pursuing an acting career, and kept a printshop studio at his Los Angeles home throughout much of his life. How these little prints ended up in a larger work dedicated to the great singer Nina Simone becomes an enigmatic mis en abyme.
Of course, this is just one mystifying tale in a nearly infinite number of them that could be concocted while spending time with Purifoy’s work. Though at the outset, his compositions may seem haphazard, the careful viewer will come to appreciate his nimble deflections, crooked pathways, and masks and mirrors that pull you along on one trajectory only to deftly change course. Before you’ve realized it, you’re somewhere else entirely. Near the entrance to the gallery hangs one of the largest works on display, One White Paint Brush and a Pony Tail (1989), which names only two of the wide variety of items Purifoy pulled together for this grand work. What stood out to me was a battered pair of old-fashioned baby shoes, standing guard near the lower right corner. “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Hemingway’s famous six-word story came to mind. The baby shoes Purifoy found have most certainly been worn, and they tell another kind of story.