Desert art: Ashcan School

MY horse shies at bedsprings. You may think this a ludicrous statement, an impossibility unless he has the run of the house, particularly during spring cleaning, but it is not. It is a reality I live with as I ride under the arms of the saguaro, through the spiny paloverde. Not only must I watch for thorns, but I must, of necessity, be thinking ``bedsprings.'' Also the protruding coils and wads of cotton in the stuffing of couches, chairs, mattresses. The desert has, like the ocean, become the dumping ground of mankind. Unlike the ocean, however, the detritus does not sink and disappear, but lingers where left, refusing to rot or even rust in the dry air.

Even so, you say, how many of these things can there be? After all, not everyone rushes to the desert to dispose of household goods. In an area of 15 square miles I have come across at least 20 sets of springs and attendant mattresses, 10 couches, and innumerable car seats, not to mention stoves, refrigerators, the shells of dismantled automobiles, and once, in ponderous, Victorian splendor a complete wooden bed with high, carved headboard. It stood in utter solemnity at the edge of the trail beneath a twisted mesquite, abandoned and out of place.

I looked at it a long time, there being no springs to frighten the horse, and I debated going for a truck to haul it home. I did not. And two days later it was gone, prey, perhaps, to another stealthy dumper who discarded and then helped himself to a treasure, for that it certainly was. It is the only treasure I have ever found in the wilderness, and I worry about it. What Joe Doakes or Jaime Garcia or Johnny Kowalsky left it and why? It was surely valuable, and therefore, to find it here must mean it had a painful history. So it was smuggled out of a house and left to its fate.

This is easier to understand than out-and-out disregard for the character and beauty of the land. We live in cities with regular refuse hauling. The ease with which this is done cannot compare with the labor of loading a truck, driving miles over nonexistent roads, and unloading all again. So where is the rationale? It can't be laziness. Can it be some twisted notion of neatness? Does out of sight equate with out of mind?

But these things are not out of my sight, nor of those others who hike or ride in the supposed wilderness. The bedsprings are there, coiled and lurking, distressing even a horse that leaps in the air at the very hint of such a predator, his eyes bulging, his tail high, and me holding on for dear life and wishing I might catch the litter bugs in the act. It must happen in the dark of night, however. The doers must know, in some corner of their minds, that such debasement is wrong, and thus wind their ways in secret, fearful of discovery.

Yet given the state of the present-day visual and plastic arts, perhaps they do not consider this defacement but enhancement. Picture these dumpers dancing in the moonlight, erecting here a piece of iron, there an upended sofa, their shadows and those of their creations as weird as those of cactus, the effect sometimes not much different from the rusted steel sculptures that hang from the ceilings of airports and banks, rise from museum gardens; twisted pieces of junk salvaged from the dump, commentaries on what lies without and, in some cases, within.

PICTURE these modern Michelangelos brandishing scraggly mops, vacuum cleaners, the bent legs of broken grills and kitchen tables, artists all, depositing here and there a statement. Henry Moore carved doughnuts. Joe Doakes, dumpster extraordinaire, strings stoves out like boxcars. Jackson Pollock shot bullets of paint, dribbled sand on his canvases. Jaime Garcia wrings bed springs into bundles; the sand is his canvas. Andy Warhol made monuments of cans and movie stars. Johnny Kowalsky, hopping among thorns like a jack rabbit, hangs cans from twigs, stacks newspapers at random.

Richard Serra, the removal of whose ``Tilted Arc,'' a wall stretched across a New York City plaza, was recently the subject of a battle in federal court, has also decorated the landscape willy-nilly. The result, as I recall, is no more pleasing than these mounds of discards. The pomposity of the statement is the same. Man's simplest leavings, conscious or otherwise, are as valid as those of nature, the equal of foliage and hills.

There is no immediate solution to the dilemma and will not be until our wild places have become so rare that they, too, will be viewed as works of art, from behind glass and miles of rope barriers.

For the moment we can no longer differentiate between creation and disorder. We have passed out of the realm of taste and have left discernment to the horse.

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