After living in Death Valley I learned that the desert is more compelling and unpredictable than I gave it credit for. The night sky is so visible you can actually see the curvature of our planet; summer temperatures average at 120° and it's drier than the L.A. River yet there are waterfalls to speak of. The nearby ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada offers another seemingly out-of-context wonder.
Located at the entrance to Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an exhibit of seven large-scale sculptures by various Belgian artists. Intent on finding a place where they could work freely, the artists chose the Mojave Desert as their spatial muse. The on-site sculptures that resulted, from a mosaic sofa to a colossal blonde nude, have transformed this expanse of land.
In an otherwise vast and lonely setting, the artworks evoke a sort of animating quality. Their contrast with the natural environment heightens visual acuity, provoking awareness of the art and space around you. I may never have studied the intricacies of Sofie Siegmann's mosaic couch or noticed the mineral deposits of the nearby mountains if not for this incongruity. (For a similar contrast effect, read on an exhibit at Versailles that integrated the anime-style art of Takashi Murakami into the 17th-century Baroque palace.) Though initially disarming, the desert sculptures assume a rightful presence in this harsh but captivating landscape.
Just as the Goldwell artists celebrate a unique workspace, so too can we celebrate uniqueness of movement. There is something invigorating about viewing art outside the controlled space of a traditional museum. It is easier to engage with since you aren’t being over-stimulated by imagery. You don’t have to feel anxious about crossing the invisible line since there’s no guard to scrutinize you. You can frolic in the shrubs and no one would care. Every now and then it's nice to view art unrestricted.
Upon indulging in these freedoms I took a special liking to Venus of the Desert by Hugo Heyrman. She is a huge, cinder block sculpture with a presence that teeters on the spiritual. Simplified in form, her most distinctive features are her breasts and hair, including the dainty tuft of yellow on her pubic region. She kneels with her arms at ease in quite the ambiguous gesture.
A reference to the ancient Graeco-Roman goddess of sexuality and love, Venus has been appropriated by artists for millennia now. As the archetype for the classical female nude she has inspired works such as Titian’s 16th century Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia of 1863.
Heyrman’s work is a reinterpretation of the classical nude form, a popular undertaking by modern and contemporary artists. Among them is Pop artist Tom Wesselmann, who parodied female objectification in his Great American Nude series from the 1960s. Like Wesselmann's nudes, Venus of the Desert is not soft and languorous but anonymous and industrial, from her lego-like formation to the cinder blocks that shape her. She resembles not a traditional goddess but a blonde bombshell—a goddess of modernity, if you will.
Heyman's work is not completely distinct from ancient practice. The sculpture's monumental size echoes the large-scale statues Greeks and Romans erected to the gods, serving both as protectors and objects of worship. Additionally, the kneeling pose of Venus is suggestive of prayer and thus her mythological origins. Ultimately Heyrman's work captures an intersection of ancient and modern conceptions of sexuality and art.
Even if visitors like myself did not come to Rhyolite seeking a Mecca, Venus lends to it the air of a pilgrimage site. In fact most of the sculptures have a mystical presence, largely a byproduct of the unique space they inhabit. This collection is a reminder that we can interact with nature and art in a unique and non-disruptive way, and above all that you are never alone in the desert.