The infinite landscape
The Sonoran Desert stretches from Southern California to Mexico, an expanse of mountains and dusty flatlands. It’s a rugged landscape that has captivated Phillip K. Smith III since his childhood. In his studio outside Palm Desert the good-natured artist explains that despite the preponderance of fibreglass, mirror and wood stacked about the place, his real materials are space, time and light. From The Circle of Land and Sky, a ring of 300 stainless-steel poles, to Lucid Stead, an abandoned wooden cabin re-panelled with mirrors, Phillip’s works reflect and dissolve the horizon. They always attract throngs of visitors keen to experience the majesty of the desert in a whole new way, or simply to find the perfect spot for a selfie.
Interview by Ann Friedman, photography by Milan Zrnic
ANN FRIEDMAN: You grew up here in Palm Desert, but you went to university and started your career on the East Coast. Did you always know you’d move back?
PHILLIP K. SMITH III: Well, I always say if you grew up in a desert, a desert is just in your blood. I lived on the East Coast for eleven years. I was in Providence, Rhode Island, I was in New York, and then I was in Boston for about four years. But as much as I loved it, I really missed the brown mountains and being able to see the horizon line, and that sense of being able to get away from humanity - not in a scary way but just to be able to be immersed in nature. I wanted to get back to the beauty of this place.
AF: I have to imagine you missed the light here, too. The sunsets are like nowhere else.
PS: There are incredible natural phenomena with light that happen daily, and all that is required is for you to open your eyes and spend the time to see it. That’s every day. Those mountains, they’re just starting to do it right now. [He points outside the window] You look straight out and there are no shadows. There’s nothing.
AF: Right, it’s almost flat.
PS: It’s totally flat. But shadows are starting to come out because we’re getting toward the end of the day. The later it gets, the more highly textured it will become. There’s a gradation from two dimensions to three dimensions. In my work, it’s not like I’m trying to replicate the mountains or something. It’s just part of my daily visual stimulus.
AF: Do you actually live smack in the middle of the desert?
PS: I live in the low desert of Coachella Valley. It’s got more of a Palm Springs, “lush” desert-resort, laid-back kind of feel, with palm trees, golf courses, pools and mid-century modern developments. But a ten-minute drive can put you out in the raw of the desert.
AF: How would you describe the desert here to somebody who had never been?
PS: It’s highly varied. You’re always surrounded by mountains - typically, brown mountains with few or no trees. Miles of landscape dotted with nothing but creosote bush. Then there are natural palm oases hidden back in canyons, and “forests” of Joshua trees in the high desert, and miles of shifting sand dunes. People often think it’s barren here, at first glance, but there’s so much life. The desert requires time and being still in order to experience it, to see the environment.
AF: Do you get out into the desert often? Do you hike?
PS: I’m a hiker, I’m a driver. On the other side of those mountains is Joshua Tree National Park. I’ve been trying to spend a bit more time in the Mojave Desert, which is past Joshua Tree. When you start out on the back road to Las Vegas, it takes you through the areas that are near the Mojave Preserve. That area is just really, really beautiful. It’s just ultra raw. There’s very little of the man-made world out there. Just the roads and a few random buildings.
AF: Do you tend to hike alone or with company?
PS: I do both. Sometimes I head out solo into the far reaches of the Salton Sea or nearby at Willis Palms on top of the San Andreas Fault. I’ve hiked with close friends to favourite spots like Magnesia Falls in Rancho Mirage, the Martinez Landslide south of La Quinta, and Cadiz Dunes in the Mojave...
AF: Do you take some sort of special car, like a 4×4?
PS: Not necessarily. You just have to know where you’re going and be prepared and informed. The desert can bite back if you’re not careful.
AF: I was in Death Valley for the first time a few years ago, and it really felt far from the man-made world. Completely untouched.
PS: In high school, I was part of our hiking club. It was a super small school in Palm Springs, with just 28 in our class. And every year right after Christmas, there was a group of ten or twelve of us that would go to Death Valley. We’d stay there for a week and we’d camp, and every New Year’s at midnight, we were out on the salt flats, under the moonlight. That stuff sticks with you.
AF: The desert feels almost timeless. How does that sense of stillness come into play when you’re making work in this landscape?
PS: Part of why I like hiking and driving is to reconnect with that. We’re sitting here in the studio, where there are deadlines and people and questions and phones and emails. But at the root of what I’m doing is the beauty that’s out there and that overall sense of pace and light and change. When you’re out in the desert, it’s impossible not to think about those things: about your scale on the planet, the change that is occurring, and how long it has taken for that landscape to form. I think it gives you a very healthy perspective on what’s going on and what’s important. The desert itself has always been a blank canvas for people. It forces the question: “Who am I, and what am I doing?”
AF: Is that the meaning of “lucid” in your piece, Lucid Stead? That clarity or awareness?
PS: I used the word “lucid” because there’s a sense of awareness, and there’s a sense of light - and “stead” because it was this homestead and it was also “in place of”. I love words. I’m a big palindrome fan, which is maybe why I like working with mirrors.
AF: Your use of mirrors and polished surfaces also means that people can literally see themselves in the work that you make.
PS: We just got my first book from the printer, which is very exciting. One of the quotes in the book is from my mom. She was out there visiting Lucid Stead, and she said, “I’ve lived in the desert for 32 years, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen myself in the desert.” It’s entirely abstract to have a mirror in a landscape. Usually they’re only in the most intimate of spaces, so when you bring that out into the environment, it enables people to question a lot of things about themselves. When we did The Circle of Land and Sky at the art exhibition Desert X we had 300 of these mirror-polished stainless-steel reflectors that allowed people to really view the environment. It made them highly aware of what was happening above and around them. The piece was made up of the environment itself. So that’s the beauty of using a mirrored surface: it de-materialises itself, which allows you to use the environment as something you’re actually building with.
AF: Do you choose beautiful landscapes for this reason? Or are you interested in bringing that approach to a more humdrum environment?
PS: I am a hundred per cent interested in that. The opportunities I’ve had recently are in really beautiful places - Laguna Beach and the desert and Miami Beach - but I really want to do projects that are in between Los Angeles and New York. Ultimately I want to be challenged by a set of parameters that I could never recreate in a studio.
AF: When you begin working in a new landscape, how do you figure out what those parameters are, for instance with your latest site-specific piece on Miami Beach?
PS: When we were talking about doing something in Miami, the first thing that had to happen was that I had to get out there - get on the sand and spend time there. Be there at sunrise, be there at sunset. The sky in Miami is so unique. The expanse and scale of the cloud structure there is like no other place I’ve seen. I’m actually doing an arc. The arc we did in Laguna in 2016 was perpendicular, so that it related to the horizon line and the sunset. Out here in the desert, we angled it up so that there was a real separation of land and sky. In Miami, I’m angling it so that I can solely get to the clouds, show that movement and that expanse.
AF: I noticed that the majority of the photos in your book show the works reflecting the landscape, not people. But I’m sure your mirrored works are popular sites for taking selfies. How do you feel about that?
PS: I think it’s inevitable. Sometimes those things are ways in for people. It pulls them in to discover what’s next. I’m open to all of that. I recognise that I’m putting a mirror out in the environment. People are always going to take photos of themselves, because that’s what people do. With the piece for Desert X, because of the angle, you couldn’t stand in the centre and see yourself. Whereas in Laguna Beach it was perpendicular so you saw your full body, head to toe, as you were moving through the piece. There are lots of ways to tweak that relationship.
AF: You worked as an architect before becoming a full-time artist. Do you miss designing buildings for more practical, everyday use?
PS: I thought I’d make buildings, but I was always really interested in art. I’m happy when I’m making things, and that can mean a lot of things. Now that I don’t have to worry about HVAC systems and door frames and fire systems, I can just be dealing with the purity of space and light. When I moved back to the desert in 2000, I started an architecture office and designed several large buildings here. The last building I did was a huge homeless shelter out in Indio. But alongside that work I was always doing sculpture. There was a moment when they were almost fifty-fifty: I had all these interesting architecture projects and these weird sculpture projects. Eventually, because of the recession, the architecture part faded away and a lot of our public art projects were going through.
AF: It’s interesting that the buildings you worked on as an architect will remain standing longer than many of your art works, which are designed to be temporary.
PS: We’ve done a lot of largescale public work that is permanent, but the big, impactful projects have been all temporary. I think for me, taking it down is as exciting as putting it up. Because the thought of people showing up the next day and seeing that it’s gone - that is something that opens people’s eyes. They’re going to look at that landscape with an entirely different understanding than they did before the project. They’re continuing to look, and for me that is a mark of a successful project.
AF: The works also live on in photos and in the books you make.
PS: I always say that 99.99 per cent of the world will experience the work through photography, so that has to be as good as the actual experience, if not even better. I’ve worked with the same photographer, Lance Gerber, since 2013. Now, as we work on projects, it’s almost a kind of collaborative experience. We’ve both trained our eyes through each other.
AF: And then there’s all those other photographers on Instagram.
PS: The reality is that everybody has a phone in their pocket and everybody is documenting what’s going on. I love it because all of those images get shared online, and I actually learn about my piece through other people’s eyes. In a way, there’s this extended network of photographers and documentarians out there helping me to understand or progress my own ideas.
AF: After a work is disassembled, you’ve tended to repurpose the material in a new piece. Why?
PS: From the beginning I know that they’re temporary pieces, so there’s an opportunity in that. In the first installation, the understanding was that we’re making 300 of these things or whatever, and in a month they’re going to be right back here in the studio, so what are we going to do with them next? The same way that a painter is working through a series of ideas and has a series of canvasses up. We can be thinking about installations in a similar way. Taking them to Miami now has been really exciting. I think this could likely be the third and final iteration of using these reflectors.
AF: Are you worried about getting so busy with your work that you won’t have time to just hang out on your own in the desert anymore?
PS: Yeah, I think it’s something I’m highly aware of. I travelled to seven different cities in five weeks during the summertime, and it was super intense. But I love coming back to this place. That’s one thing I really know.