A presentation/talk given by Christine Carraher at the 29 Palms Historical Society Museum during the Jackrabbit Homestead Audio Tour Listening Party event on March 28, 2009.
“Hello. I’m happy to be here and thank Kim for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to talk to you. I’m going to be speaking today about my art as it relates to the homesteads and also about the 2008 Wonder Valley Homestead Cabin Festival.
[Chris’s partner, Ellie, shows the audience an artwork by Carraher titled, Cabin, from the 2007 series, The Plan: Claims of Territory in the High Desert.]
Cabin. Reduced to an icon. When we remove its accessories and conventional associations, the homestead cabin is more open to interpretation. To me in this rendering it looks more like a portal, an opening to see through, or to pass through. It also can work as a screen, convenient for projection. The homestead cabins and the homestead communities can be seen in many different ways, through a variety of lenses. They exist on different planes, depending on what you’re looking for. They’re territories that were opened up for the claiming, and everyone, it seems, has their own claim to make.
So what do you see when you come to the homesteads? Do you see blight? Loneliness and abandonment? Beauty and solitude? Investment potential? A fixer-upper? Stolen land? Recreational opportunity? Family tradition? Mystery? Criminal neglect? A failure of planning? An intrusive artifact marring an otherwise idyllic wilderness? An aesthetic subject? A research topic? The Wild West? Danger? A refuge? A dump? A target? Home? Your community? Or maybe, nothing at all?
Today I want to talk about some lenses through which I view the cabins, through my art and also through my roles as an activist, a homeowner, and community member.
So what does this screen, “cabin,” show about my own projections?
I’m going to tell you a story. Six or seven years ago Perry Hoffman and I got an idea about the pink cabin. Many of you know the pink cabin. It’s out on the highway, a few miles east, and it’s had a Triad Realty sign in the window for at least the 17 years I’ve been out here. So, long story short, Perry and I got an idea we wanted to turn it into a kind of homestead museum slash gallery slash evolving installation piece. And we had to wrestle a lot with the issues of how to make it secure, or as it turned out leave it unsecured, because there didn’t seem to be any way of securing it that would not fundamentally change what we found attractive about it, which was its sense of abandonment, its fadedness and freedom, the way it seemed to melt into the landscape. It’s sense of openness, essentially. And we came up with an idea of how, okay, we could do a minimal clean-up and fix the roof, make the concession of some removable screens to deal with the pigeons, and beyond that just leave it essentially open. Anything that was of value we’d remove when we weren’t there. And, let the forces of the desert, including the humans wandering around in it, have their way. But – where we hung up was the windows. They were broken and unsafe, and we could reglaze them and make them safe but then—they would be different. We realized we loved the broken window frames just the wayward way they were. That somehow the experience of the cabin would be different if we fixed the windows. So we went round and round with this discussion, and Perry wanted to reglaze them and I didn’t, and one day we went over there with a friend and were discussing this and Perry grabbed the sash of the kitchen window and shoved it up and a great big shard of glass fell out and sliced across his arm, like this, and so it was off to the emergency room and goodness knows how many stitches and that was the end of the discussion about the windows.
There are many conclusions that can be drawn from this story. But for me, the story is about the quality of openness. About boundlessness. About the desert and the seduction of negative space. The abandoned small-tract cabin is as much about what is around it as about a human structure. It’s that relationship that matters particularly to me in my art.
The derelict small-tract cabin serves as a metaphor for and especially mediator with the desert—and by desert, I mean, both, yes, the ecosystem with its heat and its wildlife and its restless forces of life and erosion, but also the iconic, archetypal desert found throughout mystical traditions, that legendary end-of-the-line existential realm of emptiness, nothingness, boundless space. The abandoned cabin, transparent, penetratable, with unstable boundaries and of unreliable substance, mediates with that desert, serves as a way station, a kind of halfway house, between our daily world and concerns and that “other world” that deserts have represented in human culture for thousands of years, the place where one leaves behind ones props and allegiances and, alone, confronts oneself. The cabin is a pivot point for the transition into negative space.
And that was what was attractive to me in the pink cabin. It was porous, unfixed, a transit point, and any attempt to secure or define the boundaries of the building would have changed its meaning.
This fascination has naturally found its way into my own visual artwork, where, when I look at it—and I don’t start with these ideas, I just notice later what I’m up to—I can see the various things I do to sort of defy substantiality and stable boundaries. For instance, as in “cabin” I may use levels of abstraction or simplification. This helps resist the easy or conventional association that would tend to stabilize the subject. I also work characteristically in a very gestural way. I avoid the crafted or studied line or edge that makes boundaries rigid and closed, and instead destabilize them by keeping them active or discontinuous. Walls may wobble or curve or be incomplete. Lines and planes of color may be offset, so that it’s difficult to say exactly where the object is. I also may subvert substance by creating levels of transparency, sometimes confusing what’s the background and what’s the foreground, and by avoiding three-dimensional representation. Or I may hint paradoxically at water and its reflective and dancing qualities. My desert can be a very oceanic place, with cabins bobbing on it like boats. I’m displacing the viewer’s own sense of stability.
I’ll particularly note my sculptural work, cabin/home, which you can view over at the 29 Creative Center today. In it I’ve strung together a kind of ghostly cabin-shape that’s suspended by threads within a spherical universe of steel hoops. This web-like work is totally transparent. It has almost no substance. It’s a portal, not a structure, and it only serves as a refuge if you are willing to hide from nothing. But at the same time it has all the sticky associations of a web, where things – history, dreams, myself—are caught.
So that’s some of the ways I handle the derelict cabins in my work. But in the homestead community the abandoned cabins dwell in company with the habited cabins. And I spoke of myself as not just an artist but also as activist, homeowner, and community member.
I want to show you another work from my series, The Plan: Claims of Territory in the High Desert. In this series I tried to bring together some of those different planes on which our desert communities exist, some of those different claims we make, and force them onto the same piece of paper.
The name of this particular piece is Small-Tract Homestead Act; cabins; full moon; deed to my home. This is a sort of schematic night scene in ink of a full moon over a horizon, and laid over is a grid in vermilion ink scattered with small cabin icons—not unlike the cabin we saw earlier. With this piece we’re no longer viewing the homesteads as isolated objects but rather in relation to one another, as well as in relation to the desert in which they lie. And there is tension in the relationships. An artificial, right-angled grid has been imposed over an unsuitable landscape. But at the same time the grid ties us all together, wilderness, empty cabins, habited cabins. The piece holds my own sense of unease at my participation, yet nevertheless acceptance of my condition—this is my home, and my community. But just what is that community?
It’s curious that the small-tract homestead has historically been almost invisible in our art. With the exception to a degree of photography, I’ve found very little evidence until recently of the small-tract homestead as a subject of art. We do art of everything else out here, but the cabin, and the homestead community, for some reason were apparently not considered “picturesque”. Not an acceptable subject.
I have my own theories as to why: shame and class anxiety; an ignorance of their place in history; a rejection of their very existence as an intrusion upon the desert as idyllic nature; or maybe just a dismissal of the possibility of any aesthetic appeal. They are pretty humble architecturally, after all. Whatever the reason, this invisibility matters, because so long as these communities were not visible in our art, they were not visible in our consciousness. And so long as we could not “picture” them we could not “see” them, and they could be dismissed and destroyed. Without visualizing our community character there was “nothing” to be lost, or saved.
A homestead cabin festival was organized last year by myself, Scott Monteith, and Andy Woods in part as an attempt to change that situation by making visible our homesteads, and our community. The 2008 Wonder Valley Homestead Cabin Festival featured work—visual art, music, performance, poetry, prose—that was related to the homestead cabins. I’d like to think that the Festival had a hand in reversing the invisibility of the homesteads and the communities in several ways: by educating us about their origins and their historical nature; by showing and sharing the pride and affection of the inhabitants for their homesteads; by establishing that this community does, indeed, have a character, and this character is unique; and by promoting as acceptable the homesteads as a subject of art. The homestead cabins, uniquely shared by the members of the homestead communities, were made visible as our connectors, what we have in common, whether in a state of abandonment, reinvention, or home sweet home. They are the common ground on which a terrifically diverse population can meet, and connect. They are our shared experience.
But I want to finish up by talking about the future, and the fact that the story does not end with the rendering visible of a community. Over at the Creative Center is another pastel by me, the latest, called The Seas Rise (I bid farewell to my neighbors). It’s a simple sandy-colored square with some of my only too familiar cabin icons scattered through the middle, and a broken circle drawn around them. I’ve spoken so far about the homesteads both in isolation and in relation to one another and to the desert, but they also have a relationship to forces beyond the desert. Right now both Wonder Valley and Johnson Valley are threatened by plans to expand the Marine base, and as well by plans to construct immense energy facilities and transmission lines. The Cabin Festival was part of a response to the danger posed by forces such as these, and my painting The Seas Rise… attempts to capture our community at this moment of both visible self-defining and looming disruption. For all the grand theme, the piece is actually very personal, and came out of my sense of guilt and powerlessness as I fail, for reasons of my own, to help my community at this time in the face of massive external threats. Artwork, if it’s worth anything, must be honest.
But whatever my personal drama, the bigger truths remain. The desert continues as a battleground of claims for territory. Without the boundlessness, the openness, and the desert that surrounds them the homestead communities lose their character, and their meaning. But impermanence, insubstantiality, and unstable boundaries—these have always been the real terms of the homesteads.”
Chris Carraher is a Wonder Valley resident, artist, and activist. Listen to Chris on Track 3 of the JRHS Audio Tour.