A few days ago I woke up early at my home in Coronado Cays to see if I would witness another one of those dramatic colorful sunrises. Instead, I was greeted by something bright and shiny across the bay at Grand Caribe. The shiny arch on the beach reminded me of the many local road trips I took with my friend Shelley and our teenagers to see offbeat, eccentric art during the COVID pandemic.
In Joshua Tree, we saw the “Instagram famous” toilet building at Noah Purifoy’s 10-acre gallery and 40+ biblical statues at Desert Christ Park. We drove through Anza Borrego in search of over 130 giant iron sculptures by Ricardo Breceda at Galletta Meadows Estate. We didn’t manage to find them all, but we sure enjoyed photographing the ones we did.
My personal favorite is the sea snake. Its 350-foot-long body looks like it’s swimming across the road in the middle of a desert. The kids had fun creating fun pictures with the 20-foot-tall and 45-foot-long metal dinosaurs.
Not far away, in Niland, we channeled our inner hipsters and spent about half an hour exploring Salvation Mountain, a religious monument designed by Leonard Knight that became a man-made mountain over 28 years of piling cement and decorating it with thousands gallons of paint and discarded materials such as tires, windows and straw bales. The colorful neon phrase “God is love” is the focal point of this artwork.
Down the road from Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an abandoned naval base that can only be described as a modern-day Wild Wild West. The city prides itself on being the “last vacant seat.” It started out as a cheap alternative temporary residence for snowbirds, but soon became a permanent home for lonely wanderers and social outcasts. Being there gave me a similar feeling to when my dad used to take me to his cousins house years ago in East LA, where we told each other we were safe as long as we didn’t stay there too long. While Salvation Mountain reminded me of a 1960s vibe, the artwork you can find throughout Slab City, built by various residents, made me think of the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max with the lack of law enforcement, running water, sanitation or electricity. We felt that this was quite an interesting dichotomy.
Bombay Beach is located on the Salton Sea, about half an hour north of Slab City. It was once a popular destination during the Frank Sinatra era, attracting Hollywood celebrities to luxury resorts along the coast. The Salton Sea, the state’s largest man-made lake, has been slowly eroding and in the 1980s became a toxic disaster thanks to chemical runoff from nearby farms. Bombay Beach looks like a ‘richer’ version of Slab City. The art has a cleaner and more sophisticated look – although the artists use similar types of recycled tires, metals, wood and plastic. Strangely, this desolate ghost town is experiencing a revival, attracting big name artists and overflowing with exciting works to see. Perhaps social media like Instagram has a lot to do with its newfound fame; or maybe it’s the inexplicable magical sense of strangeness one gets when driving the colorful streets and walking along the crisp sand at sunset with the sight of decomposing fish on Bombay Beach. The beach scene is like stepping into one of Salvador Dali’s famously quirky paintings that defy logic and convention.
Once I was lucky enough to go there at sunset when the colors in the sky turned the sea red with fire. On another visit, the clouds were big, dreamy and bold. Both times, they took dramatic photos with the famous alliterative swing located in the shallows of the Salton Sea, which attracts many Instagrammers to the area. I like the sign that says “The only other thing is nothing”. On land, my favorite sight is a “crashed” plane called “Lodestar” by Randy Polumbo. The Lodestar is a well-known sculpture that even traveled to England to be part of an exhibition. The entire territory, including the beach itself, is like an open-air museum. One could spend a whole day or two just looking at the various works he is proud of.
I returned to these places when I saw the bright shiny arch reflected in the water opposite my window. I was intrigued enough to walk over to the park and take a closer look. The man who installed the arch happened to be there, and he calls himself the “master of refraction” of light. Its medium is old movie DVDs or discs created by a 3D printer. He used the natural light from the sun to create the colors to paint the water. I didn’t fully appreciate the concept at first until I thought about all the non-traditional media I had seen in the desert. I’m sure that when Leonard Knight first started creating his artwork, people had strange thoughts about him and what he was doing. Years later, many travel long distances just to take pictures of Salvation Mountain. Who knows, maybe that guy from Northern California visiting his folks in Case might be on to something.