My hometown town was southerners - transplanted Oklahomans, Missourians, Texans, Arkansans. They had made their way west to find work in southern California, like the first Dust Bowlers, and arrived cousin by cousin and household by household. Eagle Mountain, California, their destination, was the site of an open-pit, iron-ore mine, and by the time my family arrived in 1954 it had filled up with 500 people. Over the years, though my work has spiraled away from Eagle Mountain to include the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, the Salton Sea and other locales, the mining town of my youth and the twisting strands of its story have remained my work’s heart. Illuminating the origins of this place helps in understanding my paintings, and the continuous narrative they form.
Eagle Mountain is an outpost that had and still has the feel of a dusty Spaghetti Western. At 33 N degrees latitude, 115 W longitudes, it lies in one of the most barren stretches of the Mojave desert. Its isolation was once so extreme that during the Second World War, before Kaiser Steel broke ground for the mining camp that would become Eagle Mountain, General George Patton determined in a series of flyovers that this was the most desolate region in the country. He was searching for an uninhabited area in which to train his army for the coming invasion of North Africa. Thirty miles from where Eagle Mountain would soon be, he built Fort Irwin. As many as 250,000 soldiers at a time trained there, where today ghosts haunt McDonald’s patrons and vice-versa.
Though Eagle Mountain was a flyspeck hidden in a valley with one road in and the same road back out, it functioned as a vital peripheral link in an economic system whose center was Los Angeles. Its sole purpose was to provide raw iron-ore to the Fontana steel mill in suburban Los Angeles, which for half a century was the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi. Fontana supplied steel for Los Angeles’ booming construction industry and consequent meteoric growth, and for critical components of the Los Angeles-based defense industry, such as Douglas Aircraft. As remote as it may have appeared, Eagle Mountain was thus intimately woven into one of the most powerful systems shaping the United States, her steel-dependent military industrial complex.
This region is so remote from the Manhattan- and Los Angeles-centered art world that to pair the two seems laughable. Yet the importance and aura of this place have long been part of the both the LA and New York scene. The young Robert Smithson was fascinated by the mining industry and even toured a Kaiser Steel facility hoping to develop a proposal for collaboration. I mention Smithson because as different as we may appear, at root similar forces drive our work. To grow up where I did—with mountains exploding outside my schoolroom windows each day, and with slag heaps oozing from mountaintops like alien growths—is to understand instinctively the ideas of entropic and apocalyptic landscape narratives. My paintings tap into the desert’s dream life as a natural extension of my own; into the Mojave’s unconscious; its antediluvian beginnings, science fiction futures, and contradictory presents.
My work on arid wastelands shares a kinship with that of land use artists and conceptualists, but also has distinct philosophical underpinnings. I have incorporated a sensibility and visual language from the European past in order to ground my new world experience of geographical remoteness, rock creep, debris slides, and fragmentation. Chortkov, the vanished Ukrainian village from which my mother’s family came, and Vilna, the Lithuanian cultural center from which my father’s family emigrated, are part of this. The thought of another son of Vilna, Chaim Soutine, struggling to paint his landscapes and thus somehow embrace nature in the midst of cultural breakdown, links my project to his. I am drawn to the passion and extravagance of his paint handling, and his need to believe in modernity, in spite of its seemingly insoluble chaos and his own Talmudic resistance to it.
Eagle Mountain became a ghost town in 1982. Squeezed out of the steel market by the Germans and Japanese, Kaiser Steel was forced to shut down its company town. Within a year all of its citizens had to evacuate, leaving the town’s 660 tract homes intact, but empty, its occasional swimming pool pristine, but waterless, and its gaping strip-mine depressions eerily frozen.
Yet Eagle Mountain did not remain dormant. Perhaps the disposability that marked it was responsible for propelling it into new roles. In the late 1980’s the town was reincarnated as a potential host for the world’s biggest landfill: a proposal was put forth to transform its largest strip-mine depression into a mega-dump, in which a hundred years of Los Angeles’ garbage would be stored. Ten years after, the landfill scheme still unresolved, another story line developed. This time a prison, run by a Utah-based corporation, under contract to the state of California, was installed in the old single miners’ quarters at the west edge of the ghost town. But after less than a decade California’s budget problems worsened and the facility closed.
The facts on the ground diverge and the trail of this post-modern western sometimes seem to grow cold, but then something happens and Eagle Mountain seems to turn over in its grave again. What is the economic crisis that is remaking our national dream if not shades of the Eagle Mountain story? The strange beauty of the East Pit’s two-mile-wide and two-fifths-mile-deep strip-mine hole looms over the former community, as it haunts my own wonder and worry. The East Pit’s undulating terraces spin down toward the earth’s core, and up, like Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, toward the heavens. This spiraling sense of movement mirrors my own artistic inquiry, and is a metaphor for my study of Eagle Mountain and the surrounding Mojave, with its changing socioeconomic proposals, populations, and patterns; its besieged bird life and edenic but fragile national parks.
I feel a bond with artists such as Soutine, Smithson, Guston, and Kitaj, to name a few, and find touchstones in figures, including friends, not so well known. These include the Russian nostalgist Natalya Nesterova, the Chicago expressionist Vera Klement , the late LA realist James Doolin, and the late southern California assemblagist Noah Purifoy.
At the end of the day, all of my work is a continuous personal narrative, in which I am never far from the center but never central.