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Life & Work with Angel Chen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Angel Chen.

Hi Angel, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I had been out here in isolation in the Mojave for five years when the pandemic hit. I bought the Zen Dome as a weekend house. Every trip it grew on me until I wanted to make it my full-time home. I searched for a permanent studio, immersion in timeless space, where I could live without distractions and obligations. The work led me to the desert. I sought emotional calm, serenity, and relief from the anxiety of urban living. I knew I needed a change. It wasn’t one thing, it had to be everything. I wanted to create an environment where process could flow uninterrupted. What I was seeking was more than a place or a situation, I was seeking an emotion of freedom. I made a radical move that could have been the biggest mistake of my life.

One thing led to another and I followed my instincts all the way out to the end of the line. What felt like the edge of civilization became home. I desired to create a state of peace, where flow became effortless and spontaneous. Tranquility and stillness nurturing a creative life. People always ask me if Joshua Tree is like Palm Springs. I say no. Not at all. It’s more like Mars.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
The desert isn’t for everyone. It was challenging moving out here as a single woman. I do not fear the rattlesnakes, black widows, and scorpions nearly as much as I thought I would. My Covid stash of pasta, tinned fish, and oatmeal became an aromatic beacon of bounty to foraging wildlife. The cellophane wrapped bonanza enticed an army of mice, in turn attracting a red racer snake into the dome. My visitors worked themselves up the food chain.

I moved to the middle of nowhere with a closet full of stilettos. I was totally unprepared for this life. Radical self-reliance is the key to survival in the wild. I faced critical decisions daily. Seemingly common sense choices could lead to disaster, such as storing an entire cord of firewood under the eaves, then discovering on the first rainy day that it leaked and I was stuck at home without firewood in a flash flood. Or filling the house with smoke the first time I lit a fire, only to discover the chimney was stuffed with three trash bags full of bird’s nests.

Utter frustration and steep learning curves are met with flashes of heart-bursting joy and complete satisfaction when everything is working. Sunset light shows at magic hour bring waves of euphoria basking in golden hour… producing an intoxicating feeling of being in the right place at the right time. That blissed out desert vibe is simple gratitude for finally getting everything running smoothly, for a moment, until something else comes up.

Just the other day, I took my car in to be serviced when the check engine lights flashed on. Rodents were nesting under the hood and had chewed some wires. Guests were staying in the dome for a romantic Valentine’s Day when wild windstorms blew the skylight off the roof leaving a hole in the ceiling while young lovers were nesting by the fireplace. These things happen. It’s part of living in the wild.

Being different is not easy anywhere, but especially in the high desert where multiple demographics collide. The long-haired guitar-playing hippies in Joshua Tree coexist in stark contrast to the gun-toting NRA Trumptown of the largest Marine base in the world in 29 Palms, next to Yucca Valley, a long strip of big box chain stores like Home Depot, Marshall’s and Del Taco, the very commercial aspect that others moved to the desert to avoid. The mashup provides a backdrop to the cultural mosaic of America today.

An unexpected level of isolation was the lost in translation part of leaving the city where your old friends and family no longer understand you or your new life direction. They ask seemingly innocuous questions like, “what do you do with all your free time?” And you don’t know how to answer because you haven’t had any in 5 years. Or they think that you’ve given up on life and you’re destined to be a cultural outsider. There is a faint sense of betrayal as they wonder why you’re leaving. You try to explain that you won’t disappear into a hermit’s life in the desert. Or maybe you will.

Ironically, this last year of Covid has leveled the playing field with rising functionality of working remotely. Cities are loosening their hold as commercial power centers and rural living is increasingly desirable as long as you have good internet. Joshua Tree’s popularity has skyrocketed and what was once a misunderstood life change now appears as prescient or knowing. Now instead of asking me, “Why did you move here, and what are you doing here?” People ask, “How did you know? “ I didn’t know. I simply kept my doubts to myself.

What should we know about your work?
I moved out here in 2015 to live in solitude enveloped in the epic eternal silence of the desert to focus on my work and become one with the earth and its rhythms. Joshua Tree is really LA’s backyard, I like to call it East East LA. This expansive horizon provided time and space to make ambitious works. This is where I imagined the Starchamber, subterranean dome earthwork, an underground overnight art experience, organic architecture and stationary astronomical viewing womb to sleep nestled inside the earth. We are cocooned in ionic potential energy, synchronizing circadian rhythms with the natural seasons, a still point in a turning world, literally grounded, to know our place and our purpose. The question in my mind has always been: “how do we live in harmony with the Earth?” One has to distill down to the essence of the question, “who do I want to be?”

The structure of the house decides what will happen inside it, a sheltering space conducive for dreaming, lounging, unapologetically natural, wild and free. Finally here, away from everyone and everything, I can be, and breathe, and create, and not judge, and not analyze, and not explain. Inside this private sanctuary, anything can happen.

The work was always about nature and culture: organic materials, shapes and forms. Making mountains, rocks, and waves. Elements from the beginning of time. Painting expanded to add matter and subtract surface to become a hybrid form of organic material entwined in the void of deconstructed stretcher bars. The physical wood frame was no longer a support surface of the illusionistic but became the structure for hanging billowing material, fabric unraveled, flowing, unattached.

Remnants and leftover interstitial material making seen the unseen. Using the remains. Zero waste mentality. A democracy of materials. Harvesting leather scraps as a cultural document of the fashion industry. Stringy cutouts once held a phantom pant leg or a jacket shoulder, linearity taking on a drawing and graphic quality. Its formlessness moves like an animal. Hanging lightly from tiny brass tacks, they feel free and alive. Rather than nailed or glued down, they are loosely attached, gravity eventually shaping the soft creases of the leather around the tack.

Clay scooped out material excavated from the block interior is repurposed as its positive counterpart. Markers of time, cairns along a wilderness path, reminders of where we’ve been and signposts to retrace our steps home. There is a triptych on plywood panels, with silk, leather, and cotton gauze washed over and dripping in ink that was the turning point for paintings becoming sculptures.

For many years I didn’t even make objects, I made emotions. Leaving the city for a life of solitude, a slowing down process washes over. Light and shadow installations of glass and plexiglass reflected and refracted onto mirrors through spheres and cubes of water and Siamese Fighting Fish. The tiny creatures floated serenely with iridescent plumed fins casting dramatic shadows on the walls. These works were tremendously labor-intensive and it was heartbreaking to deinstall. I’m thinking of making paintings from photographs of the ephemeral installations.

Unique handmade objects become self-portraits of my hands, an intimate size and shape. Balancing Eastern and Western influences, I call this work Femme Brut, delicate and forceful, hard and soft, material and immaterial, timeless and now, raw and refined. From the elegant arrangement of Ikebana and harmonizing environment of Feng Shui, placement and order carry meaning beyond the intrinsic value of the object itself. The works, pairings, and clusters suggest relationships of belonging, tracing memories caused by primal stacking, clawing, and carving. Scholar stones, totem spirits, and sacred objects modernizing an ancient practice of hands in earth, inhabiting an unpretentious beauty, purity, dignity, and humility, contemplative art forms honoring nature within culture.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Scooped out remains, byproduct, detritus become castaway material to form another sculpture whose entity is created by the other’s void. One physical form consciously revealed through reductive process, another ancillary object produced in an accumulative process. Both cultural markers in a symbiotic relationship generating two pieces from one intention, one a byproduct of the other, recording layers of time through a trail of earthen organic material, hidden language amongst secret travelers. They are remnants still imbued with life force and mystical qualities, like stacked oyster shells from an ancient dynasty. I’ve been making art my whole life, yet now I feel like I’m just getting started. The desert is an alien landscape that feels like a new beginning.

I have a show currently on view at Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, titled Vessel, and it’s up until July 4, 2021. Contact Eva Chimento, gallery director.

We’d love to hear about any fond memories you have from when you were growing up?
Chadwick, my junior high school, took our 8th grade class on an overnight camping trip to Joshua Tree where we were taught principles like “leave only footprints, take only memories.” Natural history and ecology were ingrained in us as well as work ethic. We carried 40 lb backpacks that had our sleeping bags and food for a week. If you didn’t carry it, you didn’t eat it. These lessons stick with you. It was always an adventure, having fun with whatever was on hand, using what we had. Later on, when I became a teacher at Wildwood, we took students on a similar outdoor education camping trip. I was so taken with the stark beauty of Joshua Tree National Park that I knew that one day I would live here and take on the role of steward of the land and pass on the wisdom of the desert. Today, my organization, Joshua Tree Society for Art and Living supports the creative process through a philosophy of permaculture that is natural, organic, and sustainable. Among other projects, such as The Starchamber, we also purchase raw desert land for the express purpose of leaving it wild.

Pricing:

  • Painting triptych 108″ x 84″ $60,000
  • Table of Ceramics 76″ x 42″ x 32″ $40,000
  • Painting 60″ x 84″ $20,000
  • Silver Stiletto $15,000
  • Painting 36″ x 48″ $8,500

Contact Info:


Image Credits:

Photography by: Zeek Yan, Sami Lane, Samuel Freeman, Andy Reznik, Angel Chen

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