Noah Purifoy is an African American artist who believed in making something from nothing. This was put to the test when in 1965 the community within the downtown LA area of Watts rioted in protest against ongoing repression and racial profiling. Taking what he could from the wreckage of the rebellion – charred wood, sheets of aluminum, disjointed household objects and the industrial inner workings of factories and foundations – Purifoy created activist art from junk. The bricolage pieces – courtesy of the ruins of the city – were a desperate metaphor for the hopes long thrown away, of resolving racial tensions peacefully. His allegiance to a Marcel Duchamp style of war against war had begun.
In 2015, we feel the relevance of this work like an illegal bullet to the brain. Noah Purifoy stayed committed to his Outsider art for fifteen years, where he created well over one hundred life sized sculptures – some which were habitable – a nod towards the need for LA’s homeless community to receive some kind of temporary housing.
LACMA (The LA County Museum of Art) is giving long overdue recognition to this important artist. Many of the pieces within its current retrospective exhibition, entitled Junk Dada are currently on show until the end of September, having been carefully transported from Joshua Tree in the Californian desert – where they were site specific pieces. In the late 80’s, Purifoy put himself into voluntary exile there. Leaving Los Angeles to work in solitude, he subsequently created an outdoor sculpture park within the Mojave desert.
I recently made the journey out from LA to Joshua Tree to see the works in their original and arid mise en scene. Seeing the pieces in the scorching climes of the desert was a very different experience from seeing them in the gallery. One was a viewing, the other an experience. At the outdoor sculpture park, you can literally the sculptures by walking inside them, whilst at LACMA the pieces stood in raised sandboxes with Do Not Touch Signs. The juxtaposition of primitive assemblage art – weathered, battered and beaten by light, wind and sand – against the stillness of the Wiltshire Boulevard based museum is like seeing a terrain placed into a laboratory. An untameable wildness was burgeoning from the boxes.
Noah Purifoy has talked about the humour of his pieces, and how children respond well to them – and in the gallery one feels in a safer space to have that chuckle. For example, although The Washer Woman piece – with her boots sticking out the bottom of a wood ribboned drum – definitely has its darker undertones, it offers a contained moment to raise a smile.
The Mojave Outdoor Sculpture park takes up 10 acres of space, and en masse the work both speaks of bewilderment and is bewildering. It’s certainly less digestible. When viewing the pieces within their site specific environ, the over riding emotional quality is a mixture of fear, apprehension and amazement. Some of the metallic architecture and white emulsion frames meant there was a distinctly Mad Max vibe going on.
Apocalyptic, like an ancient civilisation had lived out there, the uncompromising environment was the precursor to apprehension. I had been warned that rattlesnakes were around, so entering any piece felt risky and possibly costly. (Investigating art is one thing – but snakes have a knack of checking one’s level of commitment to the cause). Attempting to take photographs, when the camera is overheating and the viewfinder is impossible to place, all serves to highlight the extremity of the locale. This otherworldly alien place is not conducive to an extended visit, yet these pieces succeed in standing there on an ongoing basis. There’s a real strength, a defiance to the junk that refuses to rust in the dry heat. The pieces look impermanent – via their apparent spontaneous assemblage – yet there is a comparative permanence to them, which highlighted my own impermanence as viewer. Any longer out there – in the mid day sun – and my camera would cross over to the dark side of junk.
An awareness of survival was given an eerie soundscape, as the wind that drifted through the Mojave desert gently shifted light sheets of plastic and aluminum. The ominous creaking of the scaffold anatomy, as it lifted and swayed, added to the knowingness that I was pretty much alone in the park. Like an ancient ship which is bending its boughs and sails to the undulating rhythm of the rising and falling of desert wind tides, I was both at sea and in land. A flotsam and jetsam analogy feels apt as trinkets and mille-feuille scrap yard appendages and embellishments tinker in the breeze. A pirate looting of people’s disregarded junk felt like precious currency here.
In an era where our attention span is that of an i-phone thumb swipe, Purifoy’s ongoing determination to the cause – any cause – is a value to be admired. One also cannot be astounded by his ability to find a peace within activism. Although he said his work was never an answer to a problem, he felt it was a response – by way of process. Losing oneself in the moment-to-moment process of creating, with your heart fully engaged behind a message you are driven to tell – well that’s something to live for.
The gallery space offers a moment to contemplate the grace of such practice, as well as the opportunity to find out more about the man himself. As Noah Purifoy once said, in 1963: “I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be.”
Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada is on show at The LA County Museum of Art until 27th September 2015.
Words: Lucy Norris
Cover image: No Contest (Bicycles), 1991 at LACMA, Noah Purifoy Outdoor sculpture Park (inset).
Image Copyright: Pret-A-Rever.com