In Deanna Thompson’s exhibition of new work at Kayne Griffin Corcoran in Santa Monica, she continues her Homestead paintings which depict small isolated homes that have been abandoned against the dramatic backdrop of the Mojave Desert. “Originally born of an idealized concept of self-reliance, the homestead structures in Thompson’s paintings are now nothing more than abandoned outposts in a desolate environment. Battered by time and the elements, they have become monuments to change and emblems of the dramatic economic and social shifts that define the present.” We had a chance to ask Thompson, known for working in isolation in the Yucca Valley, CA, a couple questions about her home and the “American Dream,” which is introduced by excerpts from a new essay on her work titled Twilight of the Houses by art critic Robert Dean.
Welcome to the desert of the real—the Southern California high desert some thirty miles north of Palm Springs. Though in relative proximity to all things Southern California, the landscape initially seems unwelcoming, even hostile, and you have to wonder: how can anyone live here? But, as progress chews up scenery, the Morongo Basin and Yucca Valley are indeed becoming inhabited… Things are looking up for civilization. As is often the case, though, nature itself can’t be subdued so quickly. Just beyond the heat, the dust, and the rickety vegetation are the things quietly unique to this terrain. Roller coaster roads wind past hill-sized mounds of egg-smooth rocks: not to far a hop to a Tanguy painting. So it shouldn’t surprise you that this is also a place slowly being discovered by adventurous artists.
Deanna Thompson is an artist who has created a large body of paintings depicting old dessert cabins. These are the small structures sprinkled throughout the region, remnants of 1938’s Small Tract Homestead Act, in which the U.S. government sold five-acre parcels of what it considered useless land for somewhere between ten and twenty dollars an acre. This so-called “jackrabbit homesteading” peaked in the region after WWII and came to an end in 1976. Consider this quote from a 1950 issue of Desert Magazine: “Jackrabbit homesteads are only for folks who have a bit of pioneering blood in their veins. The land is generally rough, no water is immediately available, more or less road building has to be done. But fortunately there are many Americans who find infinite pleasure in doing the hard work necessary to provide living accommodations on one of these sites—and cabins are springing up all over the desert country.”
But this homesteading dream had long exhausted itself by the time Deanna moved to the area in 2004 as a sort of redux homesteader, living herself in a refurbished cabin. One is immediately struck by the isolation around these habitats. Yet Thompson isn’t anti-social—rather she is quickly gregarious and articulate, and opens up to conversations and ideas easily. She’s quite cognizant of the oddball nature of this place and its populace, but doesn’t look at it negatively. At least it doesn’t seem to bother her. She adores her isolation—she thinks of it, too, as pioneering—and it is this isolation that ultimately serves as her subject…
I started thinking about Thompson’s title for this series of work: “American Dream Homes.” At first blush, “American Dream Homes” seems ironic. But her interpretations convey an idealistic representation even in their subjects’ states of dilapidation. It is both, and this dual axis of irony and homage is where Thompson integrates her achievement. After all, Thompson resides in such a cabin herself, yet knows the reality and sacrifice at hand. Artists and photographers both have explored the idea as well as the terrain of the desert, but Thompson is unique; she is not a tourist, nor does she attempt to impose change or her will on the environment…
… A cabin, as rendered by Thompson, is an object of veneration; it also remains a derelict, dilapidated shack. Still, these abandoned shacks hold within them the memory of human presence. Nature is wide open while architecture delineates space, and with it creates the presence of the human. Thompson’s landscape is thus denuded of all particulars, stripped down to its essentials, to a visual purity. The paintings have cooled off the hostile desert. It is here that these structures become dream houses…
The sun is never directly seen in Thompson’s paintings but, as in the desert itself, it is all pervasive. Light is exterior to her pictures, indicated only and occasionally by the direction of shadows. Many of the paintings have thick coats of varnish, which cast a reflective glare reminiscent of the desert sun—a sun that gives light, but also bleaches, blanches, withers any object caught in its beam. As a body of work, the paintings share a common attribute: the depiction of isolated shacks in forsaken landscapes; for the most part there is no variation in the physical type of these shacks or one-time cabins, only degrees of dilapidation in the sun. In her way, Deanna Thompson, fingers to the brain, is like an Eskimo cataloguing types of snow, while the rest of us only see snow as snow.
Paddle8: Can you discuss your decision to live outside of urban centers? What drew you to choose Yucca Valley, CA as your home?
Deanna Thompson: I’ve lived all my life in Southern California, so I’ve always been near the desert and other wilderness areas. Back in the 1990′s, I became aware that several artists owned properties out in this area of the Mojave Desert, including some close friends of mine. Poor but resourceful, I began to see that I could buy a little cabin out in the middle of the desert and devote my time to making art. I’ve spent the last several years here, working diligently on my homestead project. My need for wide open spaces is reflected in the austerity of my homestead paintings. I crave isolation and simplicity in most aspects of my life. I’m a sort of modern-day pioneer woman.
P8: Does the American Dream still make sense today? How might it be revised?
DT: I would hope that we’d have outgrown this need to expand endlessly but—of course—we haven’t. It’s in our nature. We all want to start out fresh and new; buy our own tract of land, build a dream home. But it’s eating up our land, our natural world. So no, I don’t think the American Dream makes sense today, but it’s undeniable. It’s in our DNA.
Be sure to check out more work from Thompson in the project space: “In the Gallery June | Los Angeles!”