Kern

Paradise Lost: The Portal in California City

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"Welcome to California City: Land of the Sun," reads a sign on the side of the road. The surrounding terrain is bordered by an expansive horizon with acres of desert landscape rendered in browns and tans and attached in the distance to the blue of the sky above -- the territory of the sun. Situated in the northern Mojave Desert, California City is part of the greater Antelope Valley, a Kern and Los Angeles County desert region encircled by the remains of failed utopian visions of exurbanite Angelenos seeking to escape L.A. and build a new paradise: a better city, more future oriented, liberated from urban challenges, and perhaps a place of endless space and possibility. These past utopian visions remain today as cultural memorials rendered in the historical ruins of failed alternative endeavors including sites such as Llano del Rio the socialist vision of Job Harriman in 1914, Shea's Castle built in 1924 by the developer Richard Peter Shea, and California City -- a planned model community envisioned by Nat Mendelsohn in 1958. Stories about this enduring desert dynamic between earth and sky, utopia and dystopia, and positive and negative charges, led German artist Dennis Rudolph who was visiting Los Angeles on visa in 2013, to California City the lost paradise of Los Angeles' future, an ideal site for his artistic vision: The Portal -- a gateway to Heaven or Hell.

The suburban environment in the Mojave High Desert seems a natural extension of place -- another Los Angeles -- a less congested space in close proximity with open air, more sun, cheaper housing, and seemingly boundless opportunity to forge ahead and build a new improved city filled with hopes and dreams that overcome our inevitable failures. Nat Mendelsohn's California City was intended to rival Los Angeles in both size and amenities with suburban homes built on cul-de-sacs, a Central Park with a twenty-six acre artificial lake for boating and fishing that featured a forty foot waterfall, an eighteen hole golf course, picnic and sporting areas, tennis courts, blossoming gardens, a riding trail, a tavern, a motel, and a museum. Mendelsohn had envisioned an artificially constructed paradise, a modern utopian metropolis. The growth and development that Mendelsohn had expected and invested in never occurred, and although California City today continues to experience a slow expansion, it's topography lies rendered with hundreds of miles of ghostly abandoned streets from a master plan that stands inert -- a monument to artifice and ultimately to failure.

California City

Viewed from above, California City's GIS satellite imagery reveals the efforts of engineers who had constructed the lines of perfectly gridded streets in preparation for the development boom that was never fully realized. The master planned streets appear like ancient petroglyphs in the dirt, lines from a story of another time written to record and remember what has since been abandoned. Up close, the carefully laid out streets are pointedly marked by directional signs with names such as Von Braun Way, and Wonder Ave, signs that lead to nowhere and mark more clearly the pathways to nothingness or what is missing -- not anything that can be found unless you're looking for the absence of a marked present.

Among the ruins of this failed utopian city, artist Dennis Rudolph discovered Desert Butte, a solitary mountain singled out from the rest, jutting from the earth to sky as a seismic natural wonder, a centerpiece to the surrounding human intervention -- riddled with petrified palm from the ancient past, and tagged by unknown wanderers scrawling "GNOSIS" on its rocks. High atop this butte, Rudolph decided he would erect his passage to nowhere, The Portal, an effort similar to Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost "which describes "one greater Man" who will "restore us on the secret top of Oreb, or of Sinai," and regain "how the Heav'ns and Earth rose out of Chaos." Or as Dennis conveys, "The art is always behind (all things). She only consolidates the mess that happened. And the more fucked up [chaotic] the things tend to be, the more to consolidate, the better the art will become. For an artist the future is always bright and shining." At Desert Butte, Rudolph found his Mount Sinai, an artistic exodus above and between earth and sky, Heaven and Hell. His Portal becomes in essence its own chaotic salvation, an artistic pursuit of redemption formed in the continual act of creation and failure.

"Land of the Sun"

Rudolph's Portal was originally intended to be of an elaborate German Baroque design reminiscent of the European church doorways that embody the passage into sacred space. Trained in traditional artistic methods such as etching, woodcut and oil painting, and primed with a background interest in German Romanticism and National Socialism, Rudolph presented a series of portraits in oil on wood depicting icons of German WWII soldiers at Perry Rubenstein Gallery in New York in 2008. Having since abandoned the practice of painting, Rudolph has defined his belief that art and its making is also a way to mourn, stating, "the Baroque was the last defiant struggle of a time before its fundamental crisis, the French Revolution...the ripping crack, the cramping pulse of our culture is therefore also the crack and pulsation in me as a painter, knowing the weight of 'Old Europe,' which can hardly be distinguished anymore from the hollow replicas of the European cultural monuments, the props of Hollywood culture." A culture based on our willing suspension of disbelief.

His journey or ausreiseantrag (exit visa) from the East to the West to visit Hollywood with its commodity desires of the Culture Industry -- could be a "symptom" of a desire for something else, and as Theodor Adorno wrote in "Enlightenment as Mass Deception," "The great artists were never those whose works embodied style in its least fractured, most perfect form but those who adopted style as a rigor to set against the chaotic expression of suffering, as a negative truth." The Portal is either an end game that marks the border of western civilization at a point where "going west" towards Manifest Destiny had no choice to find its end before it ceased to become the East again, or a modernist future whether nothing exists and those with creative ideologies can invent a new beginning -- yet again exit utopia. California and the West could be declared Rudolph's negated truth -- a threshold where suffering and utopia converge, intersecting each other into a final blip through the semantic square, as both the place of the setting sun which can also be understood as an allusion to dying or the rising sun from the East which brings with it a morning renewal of a brighter future. Perhaps we can discover our evolved selves by passing through the doorway, The Portal -- a monument -- in and to California City.

Dennis Rudolph at the Portal | Courtesy of Casey Driver

Dennis Rudolph working on the Portal

After setting up an art studio in a hangar at the Cal City airport, Rudolph decided that the site specified for The Portal, Desert Butte, required an austere minimalist design which speaks to the surrounding desert environment where efforts of survival require expending little energy at a time in order to survive the heat and water limitations. Leaving his Eastern European ornamentation of Baroque buildings behind, the Golden West of the California High Desert particularly in Mojave is perhaps less about presence and more about the enormity of what's missing including the remnants of a future left behind in the past. To speak to this unanswered presence Rudolph began executing ceramic tiles with photographs of missing California children burnt into clay in a Mexican faience and underglaze technique that rendered the tile images in a sunburned dust color that nearly blends itself with the desert ground. Instead of the angels opening a doorway to a sacred salvation, his tiles would be placed flat and square on a minimalist doorway, with Heaven and Hell butted together back to back where one leads to directly to the other -- like a Hollywood sign for California City -- a new city of angels, and a memorial to the missing innocence that has been lost.

The Portal

In 1979, The Pop Group debuted their single "She is Beyond Good and Evil" a blend of disco-funk-punk that band member Mike Stewart saw as dissolving the divisions between poetry and politics. Stewart described the song as being about unconditional love as a revolutionary force -- where idealism and energy mix poetic, existential, and political yearnings with the romantic idea of passing through nihilism and emerging on the other side with something positive, something beyond. "She" as illustrated by Rudolph is perhaps a missing child -- a girl once known in California, gone, now beyond good and evil in her innocence lost or place unknown. In memoriam, The Portal resurrects the images of these children, the missing, neither here nor there, but lost perhaps forever on the River Styx, only to emerge again rendered in golem clay for centuries to come on The Portal's Heaven side. Stuck in the past, without present or future, Rudolph offers the missing with a monument in an earthly threshold dedicated to the lost, to a nowhere we imagine as meant just for them beyond good or evil -- if only we can find it, or them.

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To this intent, Rudolph expected to work with children and youth from California City to reinsert the memory of childhood innocence and to influence the appearance of the two sides of Heaven and Hell. After attending council meetings and engaging discussions about the project with initial responses from the local high school, and arts commission, he found his emails eventually went unreturned. Initially embraced, The Portal was becoming another chaotic quest for the impossible rebuilding of utopia that had been abandoned already by California City. Balancing between the success and failure of The Portal before his visa expired, Rudolph displayed his ongoing project in the "Under Construction" exhibition at Antelope Valley College Art Gallery in an experimental format of works in progress that brought The Portal and its artistic chaotic pursuit into the college gallery to explore how challenges, questions, and failures combine in the never ending process of making where success and failure are located both inside and beyond the gallery, the studio, a space transitioned through a doorway to somewhere, anywhere else located in basically the same place. The Portal's tagline paradoxically affirms -- "see you on the other side."

"Building for the Future"

Prior to his return back to the East, Rudolph finalized one half of his Portal (Heaven) that is installed at the Cultural Center of California City -- an outdoor collection of eclectic sculpture and artwork off of the 14 Freeway North from Los Angeles just before Lutie Ave on California City Blvd 93501. His act of creating The Portal as a golem made of clay, fired in the heat of the desert and rendered in form as a monument that will one day return back to dust only to be reborn again by another visionary seeking transcendence, represents the continual cycle of utopia -- the no place we pass through at California City. As such, the project had seen its share of difficulties and challenges defined by an artist and this place that embraces its failures at the edge of Los Angeles -- a desert utopia already defined as a portal to paradise lost.

Perhaps it's better not to see The Portal in its absolute existence, but to imagine its potentiality of becoming again and again. Rudolph's vision was to "take the shattered pieces and put them back together, to build a monument out of the scattered thoughts of memory from your earliest days... The portal is a passage, passing through, things appear as if they have been given or taken, depending on your point of view. But this is all fiction of course. The world is as it is." Just outside of California City, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo glides through the sky performing touch and goes at the nearby Mojave Air and Space Port -- another site for desert dreamers looking to expand upward rather than westward a search for utopia above us where space is infinite, and the next California City looms larger and better, with nothingness or nothing but endless opportunity. In the California West, it always begins again -- as long as the sun also rises.

California City signage

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Top Image: The Portal.

About the Author

Larissa Nickel is an artist, designer, educator, and curator whose work spans Philosophy, Art and Design with an emphasis on identity, place, and subculture.
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