Thinking About Cultural Appropriation Driving Down Highway 50, Approaching Delta, Utah.

Thinking About Cultural Appropriation, pastel, colored paper, collage 39″ X 27″ 1996-2022.

It is a recommeded drive, that long pull across Nevada…The Great Basin, starting at the Eastern slope of the Sierra, the entire state of Nevada, into Colorado, Northern Arizona and up into Oregon and ending in Utah. It presents the quintessential American landscape, and for me that shimmering vision of the first town in miles and miles got me to hunker down and draw this pastel image on my return. The sparse trees seemed to line-up to make a sentence telling me, “Draw this, you won’t be sorry, gather your thoughts and let them unfold.” That village so far away, has the bustle of any gathering of humans, which you can’t know from out here. This wide Nevada space is nothingness compared, you might say, with just about anything empty, it’s like Outer-Space has come down here for a visit.

I drove Hwy. 50 several times, and as well Hwy 6, going to and fro when my son Eli, was in high school in Carbondale, CO. Probably 10 trips. The spaciousness gives you a lot of time to mull things over. In those days, I was driving my red pick-up, a Ford Ranger, (still on the road BTW, a ’93 with enough miles to get you to the moon; we all call her Lil’ Red). On one trip I was getting sleepy, I pulled over and made a cup of coffee on my little travel stove, walked around to let the coffee kick in, maybe 40 minutes—not one other car. So, thinking, thinking, traveling through, time on my hands, you think a lot of thoughts, and the thought that comes forward so often is, how did they make a living? Those Washoe and Piutes and Shoshone. The waterways were once home to many waterfowl, occasionals and residents, antelope and deer, bears and fish. There was plenty before the Europeans laid waste to the abundance, destroying habitat, generally ruining the home of the First People, and probably for us too…eventually. That whole business fills me with a powerless shame. What to do? Is there anything I can do? This isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought.

<><><><><><><><><> I went on a canoe trip through the Everglades with my other son, Noah and my mind went wild thinking of the Seminole plying those waters. That was back in the early 80’s and the same thoughts were rampant. The Seminoles?? What have we done? When I first put this collage together, Judith hated it. “It’s so culturally appropriative.” Yes. And why not say what happened? These are things we think about. When I first put this image “together,” like all the work I’ve made since the 70’s, I had no story I was trying to tell, no agenda, not illustrating an idea. The two images became compass points pointing to what looks “right.” That pair of images were made at very different times, in very different ways, floating around the studio and got pinned up to the wall, they seemed to migrate together into the image you see here. They seemed. to “go” in that formalist sense. The pastel was drawn on my return from a car ride across Nevada. Seeing that small town of Delta, Utah across the shimmering miles was an image I was excited to “get down.” A canoe trip through the Everglades birthed the image of the Indian, paddle in hand. It wasn’t until I began the process of exfoliating, sluffing off anything in my mind, not germaine to those two pictures in conjunction with each other, that I began thinking these thoughts. The dialogue of two pictures, fills the bill when it comes to lassoing up a story. It’s the beginnings of my inquiry into generative grammar, a linguistic project for arriving at meaning via the combination of “words”… in my case, believing words are pictures, and vice versa, a combination of pictures sparks meaning. This is stuff for the smart guys hanging around at the water cooler, but at this age, who cares if I’m right or full of it? A fuller essay on that topic will come in a subsequent post, but for now try this poem for an evocation.

'Tecumseh - by Mary Oliver
I went down not long ago
to the Mad River, under the willows
I knelt and drank from that crumpled flow, call it
what madness you will, there's a sickness
worse than the risk of death and that's
forgetting what we should never forget.
Tecumseh lived here.
The wounds of the past
are ignored, but hang on
like the litter that snags on the yellow branches
newspapers and plastic bags, after the rains.
Where are the Shawnee now?
Do you know? Or would you have to write
to Washington, and even then
whatever they said,
would you believe them?  Sometimes
I would like to paint my body red and go out into
the glittering snow
to die.
His name meant Shooting Star.
From Mad River country north to the border
he gathered the tribes
and armed them one more time. He vowed
to keep Ohio and it took him
over twenty years to fail...
After the bloody and final fighting at Thames
it was over, except
his body could not be found.
It was never found
and you can do whatever you want with that, say
his people came in the black leaves of the night,
and hauled him to a secret grave, or that
he turned into a little boy again, and leaped
into a birch canoe and went
rowing home again down the rivers.  Anyway,
 this much I'm sure of: if we ever meet him, we'll know it,
he will still be
so angry.'

And, that’s exactly what this pair of images is all about. And, it wasn’t ’til I started on this essay that the Land Art movement even came into focus as something to write about. In the paired images of the landscape and the canoeist pointed me towards the Chinese concept of arriving at meaning via combinations here—with The Joyous Lake above The Receptive Earth below…more on this will be coming. It simply comes down to how we place ourselves in this complex world via a combination of eight nodes, the other six are: the Creative Heaven, the receptive Earth, the arousing Thunder, Keeping Still Mountain, the abysmal Water, the gentle Wind, the clinging Fire. Sounds like we’re in goo-goo land, but it will make some sense and, we’ll have plenty of pictures to show.

<><><><><><><><><><> The Great Basin Desert became the staging ground, a blank canvas, for the Land Art movement beginning in the 1970’s. Art that I have a personal affinity for is Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels with their cosmic alignment to the procession of the heavens, the thought of which, can stop you in your tracks. From my own bedroom window, I can watch the sunrise pop up at different points along the ridgeline, and then watch it go back as the season progresses. Lucky me, to have a bedroom observatory.

I have only seen videos of the Nancy Holt piece, as the sun lights up and the moon makes its way in the procession of the eternally changing, eternally constant music of the spheres. Sun Tunnels is high on my list of places to visit, not too far from Delta, Utah, as the crow flies. The holes correspond to constellations in this naked-eye observatory.

Sun Tunnels Nancy Holt 1976

Walter De Maria took the idea of “Land Art” in a literal way filling a gallery space in Manhattan with dirt, two feet of wall-to-wall dirt. It pretty much blows your mind to see it, it did back in 1977 when I saw it in an Art Mag and the real life thing is a stunner. 3600 square feet of prime Soho NYC retail space filled with black dirt. You don’t need a PhD in Art History to “get” this. It was a soothing balm on my last hectic whirl-wind NYC visit, smelling like spring plowing in Illinois. Go see it.

Earth Room Walter De Maria 3600 tons of dirt 1977. Wake up and smell the Earth!
Broken Kilometer Walter De Maria, brass rods equalling 1 Kilometer of length. 1978.

Yes, think about it, and that’s the very point; a kilometer of brass rods will make you a fan of this “Theme Park” for your brain. It’s a ride of mental loop-de-loop. De Maria also made the famous Lightening Field, a 1 Mile x 1 Km field of stainless steel poles planted in the New Mexico portion of the Great Basin, a picture of which informs you you are looking at a distinctly American Art. My daughter, Amelia has visited this spot, and while there was no lightening she reports the experience was… “Wait for it, wait for it, OH…this is it.” Nuf said. Are we there yet?

Lightening Field Walter De Maria 1977

As the world of Art and exhibiting, and selling became more and more skewed by the auction house, many artists packed their bags for the Great Basin. You can’t sell ideas, can you? Ideas can’t be tainted by the skew of the marketplace. Turns out you can sell an idea, and the trade in IDEA art reached the marketplace where artists were funded to extrodinary levels. Christo’s 26 mile (26 miles!) long fence went up almost in my backyard in 1978. I watched it go up and the thing that sticks is the film documentation of Christo negotiating with the ranchers for the permission to cross their land. Ranchers are a very practical bunch and Christo proved to be a persuasive advocate, putting a human face to a wild idea. Human, in the face of the inhuman, the monumental timeless thrust humans have had since Göbekli Tepe went up 12,000 years ago…that’s 7000 years before Stonehenge.

Running Fence I saw it go up and then down in it’s two week stay. Unforgettable and strangely heartwarming in the connections with locals.

Göbekli Tepe, discovered in 1994, at the top of the Fertile Crescent is a series of circles demarcated by monumental, carved stones, its purpose still unknown, but what a massing of human energy, rivaling the pyramids! and 7000 years before! It makes me want to jump and shout to know our human tribe was capable of such effort and vision. This was like our first stab at it, and we pretty much got it right.

Göbekli Tepe, kind of fakey with the moon planted for effect, but I like this illustrative shot
Why did “they” make this monument, intentionally buried for millennia, and not brought to the surface til 1994?

Whoever these people were, they had only stone tools and no agriculture to speak of. What was the organizing power that got this monument made? Does it make your head swim to think of this? Does mine!

Michael Heizer has been working on his City in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert since the 70’s. The scale rivals the great structures of the past, the Mayan, Ankor Watt… Having never seen it in person, I’m a little reluctant to weigh-in. But not THAT reluctant. There is something inhuman, detached, and to my mind mean-spirited; the opposite of a Christo or Nancy Holt who take great pains to humanize their work. Heizer feels to me like there is a dominator complex at work…he wants your attention, but only if you are willing to play HIS game of hide and seek.

City Michael Heizer

Heizer is a true desert rat hunkered down on his project for fifty years, so who am I to pass any kind of judgement having never seen his work? He’s kept people away, largely, and we are told, destoying the film of an inadvertant photographer. That said, I think we’ve all become sensitive to the dominator complex, the authoritarian lean, over the past few years of watching the dominators take over politics in Brazil, Hungary and especially here in the US. We’ve all seen what the dominators are capable of, given half a chance. I would make the effort to see City, because I believe it to be a monument to a herculean effort on Heizer’s part, and what one human vision can energize in the name of art. It is truly a great work, but, I don’t have to like it.


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I truly don’t want to hobby-horse on a ride towards dissing a great work of art. But how can you NOT think of that poem and if you had any doubts about Heizer’s dominator complex—have a look at his latest piece installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a great piece of Art, expressing so much about our world. Kudos to Heizer for sticking to it, doesn’t mean I have to LIKE the thing. I’ll be making a visit soon and will have more to say, as if that boulder gives a sweet shit about what l’il ol’ me has to say. “I am nothing,” the boulder says to me.

Levitated Mass Michael Heizer 2012

A work I very much want to visit is Roden Crater in Arizona and a part of the Great Basin landscape. James Turrell has a different tack than Heizer and it’s worth mentioning that the thrust of Turrell’s work is opposite from Heizer’s. Turrell has the human experience in mind. You are the work in a Turrell piece. Your experience makes the work alive. I’ve seen several of his pieces and all have a commonality of generosity; you participate with the work. In crepuscular rooms, your eyes must adjust to the dim light before the work becomes even apparent. Patience is Turrell’s palette and fiddle-bow. Patience is an art-material, used by Turrell so you experience the work on your own terms. Roden Crater is just that, a volcanic crater shaped into a naked-eye sky observatory.

A step into your own wonder, the planet on the floor is a piece of Brazilian blue granite.
Entrance to Roden Crater. The little figures offer scale.

This chapter started with a grief-struck feeling of what we’ve done to the First People here in the Americas and winds around to a praise-song for the artists who have made the most of the wide-open spaces. “I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences, gaze at the moon till I loose my senses… don’t fence me in… ” (Cole Porter 1934) The last pair, the Heizer and the Turrell, come down as a perfect exposition of our political divide. The ones who wish to control and dominate and those who understand the great experiment here is… “I wonder if…?” Is this the swing between the two necessary poles of our republic? Is the swing a personal, internal question? Great Art points the way to looking at ourselves. Think of the swing between domination and empathy. Think of the chasm of red-state, blue-state politics, our political divide. Empathy is funner, don’t you think? To my mind, anyway.


This just in. Breaking News!: From our very own naked-eye observatory, a spread of all the visible planets. This morning, 6/24/22, in the pre-dawn light, we see a rare sight that makes you feel like you live inside a turning wheel, singing the music of the spheres. (Name that tune!) We’ll be heading out for an overdue expedition to the Great Basin, but for now the porch off our bedroom suffices to ignite a bit of wonder and a solid placement of HERE…NOW in the widening gyre.

Excerpted from Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats, written at the start of WWII; a lamentation, then later, delighting in the wonder of the creative person…Yeats sees in a tiny figurine carved in Lapis, the whole flow of it all. YOU are here.

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat....

....Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

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