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Arts and Entertainment

Photos: We Visited An Otherworldly Art Museum Spanning 10 Acres Of Joshua Tree Desert

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It's rare that one gets an opportunity to sink into the world of an artist the way that guests at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture do. A trip to the late artist's home and, frankly, his canvas is a walk through one man's imagination.

Sitting on 10 acres, one can tour the installations that L.A.-turned-Joshua Tree artist Noah Purifoy created. We tagged along to the outdoor museum with LACMA, who will host "Junk Dada," an exhibit of Purifoy's work at the Miracle Mile museum, in June. But Purifoy's outdoor museum is its own world.

Purifoy, born in 1917, was a prolific artist and the co-founder of the Watts Tower Art Center before he ultimately ended up in Joshua Tree. He was born in Alabama, joined the Navy, and in his mid-20s, moved to Los Angeles in 1953. Following the Watts Riots in 1965, he made a sculpture from debris he found in the aftermath. From there, he organized the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon. The works in that notable show, totaling 66 from eight artists, were also made with found materials from the riots, including melted neon signs. The show would go on tour, hitting nine venues in three years.

Purifoy would later work as a social worker in the '70s and in public policy at the California Arts Council until 1987, working on programs that included bringing art into prisons.

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Purifoy eventually moved out to the desert in the late 1989, when he was 72. Though he had spent much of his life in service to the public, he found himself priced out of Los Angeles. Franklin Sirmans, a curator of LACMA's "Junk Dada," told us that Purifoy was on social security with no retirement funds when Debbie Brewer, a fellow 66 Signs artist, invited him to come stay in Joshua Tree in a trailer on the property. He went from scouring the streets for materials to build his art to rolling into swap meets in an blue Dodge pickup and getting materials from friends.

With the open desert as his canvas, his vision and work got bigger. He was of the opinion that the desert winds and animal interference was just part of a collaboration between nature and himself. For fifteen years, Purifoy created an outdoor museum, building his final piece in 2002. 'Gallows' is a replica of the gallows found in the Clint Eastwood western Hang 'Em High, of which Purifoy was a fan. Purifoy died in 2004 at age 87.

The area now is quiet under clear desert skies, though the neighbors' dog began to bark when a storm threatened to roll in and darkened the sky.

From a distance, the sculptures rising from the ground look somewhat mysterious, poking asymmetrically out of the ground. They're reminiscent of other assemblage works, like those found in East Jesus in Slab City.

Old tires make pathways and a sign bids you welcome. Some are simple in theme, like "Sixty-Five Aluminum Trays," which is a winding snake of exactly that, 65 aluminum trays. But as you enter deeper into Purifoy's realm, you find that the sculptures are more intricate than first imagined. Approaching "Earth Piece," you find that the sculpture goes underground. A rickety bridge declaring "Keep Out" spans over deep tunnels Purifoy had to use heavy equipment to dig. As independent curator Yael Lipschutz told us, "The ability to work big was always something he had dreamed of." Digging trenches in the dirt was perhaps not an artwork within the realm of possibility in Los Angeles.

Nearby is the "Kirby Express," where a number of cars on bicycle wheels form a procession down a railroad track. Some of the structures you can enter, finding even more curiosities—like a haphazard mess of old keyboards, a row of toilets, or a mannequin's head surrounded in a plume of tape.

It's a strange world, but one worth venturing into when you, like Purifoy, leave the hustle of the city for the vastness of the desert.

Guests to the museum are encouraged to call ahead and make an appointment, though the area is free to the public (donations encouraged). Pamphlets are available for self-guided tours.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. 63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree. (213)382-7516. Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada opens at LACMA on June 7.

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