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Joe DeVera: A Former Marine Retraces Conflict

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"How did we get here?" This is a question frequently appended to debates on evolution versus creation. But to artist Joe DeVera, the question serves as a vehicle to retrace the history of conflicts in our time and, in turn, to comprehend the recurring events of human tragedy. His latest body of work, a series of paintings and a site-specific installation, produced in the summer of 2015 at the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency (JTHAR) organized by its program director, Frederick Fulmer, was a testament to his ongoing investigation.

The artist's question, which emerged deeply in his work, began long before his adult years. But the inquiry became articulated visually during his education in graduate school. DeVera, a Southern California native from Orange County, graduated from Yale School of Art in 2014 with an MFA in painting and printmaking. He served the United States Marines from 2001 through 2008, taking part in two deployments to Iraq, prior to coming back mainland to pursue his education. These distinct entities informed his work, as well as the rigor of his thought processes. He began his art practice primarily in painting. He considers the works of artists Gerhard Richter and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as writer, W.G. Sebald as informative sources for his artistic process. It was during his years at Yale that he integrated sculpture and installation into his practice and became profoundly interested in equating an object's utility to its vulnerability.

Case in point, the installation entitled "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W" is named after the coordinates of an abandoned structure on Winters Road in Yucca Valley. The building sits atop Yucca Mesa less than five miles from paved roads. With only its framing and foundation intact, the 600 square foot structure was intended for domestic living. One side of the structure is exposed and torn wide open where visitors can enter. Those who venture in are greeted by two figures formed by layers upon layers of parachute fabric and paracords situated on top of wooden legs from salvaged furniture.

The figures resemble domesticated creatures -- indistinctly, horses or oxen. Their heads, bowed down as if they were grazing. Adjacent to them sits a desk with rusted nuts and bolts, and a dismantled cellphone suggesting the construction of a makeshift detonator. In its compartmental cubbies rests a topographical map, a woven rope and a folded, nylon fabric. Two of DeVera's paintings hang on various areas of the interior -- one painted on metal from Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands off the Pacific Ocean. The other is an oil painting on wood alluding to a digital reading from drone surveillance. Natural elements of the Yucca Valley such as the dust, debris and the desert wind lend a haunting auditory track to this tableau.

"I am aware of the openness of the venture, having installed in an abandoned house that itself was stripped clean of any worthwhile material," DeVera stated. "I fully expected that weather, time and the local inhabitants would eventually run its course, eventually leaving the objects damaged and bare. However, I was still taken off guard at the immediacy of which the encroaching surroundings impacted the installation."

Installation view of "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W," (2015), located in Yucca Valley off Winters Road.
Installation view of "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W," (2015), located in Yucca Valley off Winters Road.   
"Beast of Burden," (2014). | Photo: Evan Whale.
"Beast of Burden" (2014). | Photo: Evan Whale.

DeVera's work is semi-autobiographical in the same respect as Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys's is, particularly in his body of work "The Pack" (1969). Beuys's work, like DeVera, was informed by his military experience. Beuys also employed a number of utilitarian objects that evoked security and survival to the composition of his installation. The 24 sleds featured in "The Pack" resemble a pack of dogs tumbling out of a Volkswagen van. While at Yale, DeVera's project, "Beast of Burden" was a subject that intertwined the concepts of utility and vulnerability. This piece was the genesis of his inquiry, which later informed his most recent body of work in Joshua Tree. He was interested in showing an object that was greater than the sum of its parts. "Beast of Burden" featured an archetype of a pack animal -- a whale, which the artist assembled with plastic tarps that occupied a 50-by-40 square foot gallery space.

For DeVera, the objects are a means to explore a parallel narrative between man and "beasts." In, "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W," his principal question of "how did we get here" is pursued by another inquiry -- "who carries the burden?"

The installation presents a reciprocating dialogue between these creatures and the military. As human beings we depend on these creatures for husbandry to nurture and sustain our lives. Likewise, we value, honor and have the same level of dependency on the men and women who defend our country and our well-being. From the multiple tiers of parachute fabric, to the collection of found relics, man and creature co-exist in the cyclical act of nurturing, preserving and memorializing.

"Davis-Monthan Boneyard," (2013). Oil on panel.
"Davis-Monthan Boneyard," (2013). Oil on panel.

The installation revealed itself to be more than just an artwork at face value. It became a potent space where the actions imposed by the desert's natural elements and tracks of local habitants became a test for human interaction and a testament of the human condition. Objects were altered or disappeared. With no security, docents or institutional walls for protection, the sheer defenselessness of the installation became immediately apparent, as curious onlookers or wayward off-roaders who sought any value within it would encounter no resistance in taking an object from it or destroying anything they wished.

DeVera began to accept the vulnerability of his artwork. He routinely stopped by the location daily to check on any movement of the objects. Even after the completion of his residency, DeVera's return to the installation site became a ritual, trekking from Orange County and back to the desert to mend and repair what was unmade. "It became quite an emotional process," stated DeVera.

"Untitled," (2015). Spray paint, moth, mixed media.
"Untitled," (2015). Spray paint, moth, mixed media.

While the installation remains in a remote part of the area, fragments of DeVera's work that resonate the dialogue of the site are on view at the Joshua Tree art gallery. A painting entitled "Vertebrae" (2015) that sits on top of found furniture resembles the desk installation at the Yucca Mesa site. Another body of work is an untitled mixed media piece consisting of spray paint and a moth that the artist found in his studio at Joshua Tree. JTHAR hosted a reception that featured the works of the artists who received residency. In the gallery, the objects stand as both art pieces and relics representing the installation site.

As word got out about the installation and its vulnerable state, local residents began to checkup on the site. Joshua Tree residents and JTHAR hosts Ruth and Steve Rieman, who own the main house across the studio DeVera occupied during his residency, frequent the site during their morning walks. Random visitors visit the location find a sense of solace and contemplation, listening to the sound of the wind while observing the objects, knowing to respect the space and its contents.

DeVera's work exists in a democratic landscape where it is situated in an area with occupied and abandoned dwellings, creatures, vagrants and other desert dwellers. He never intended the installation to possess a second layer of experience where the objects and its viewers share the space as a sense of sanctuary from the possible harm inflicted by man. In the same regard, his work poses a series of cyclical trials that we take for granted.

"Vertebrae," (2015). Oil, chalk on canvas, parachute, paracord.
"Vertebrae"(2015). Oil, chalk on canvas, parachute, paracord.
Detail of installation "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W," (2015).
Installation view of "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W," (2015), located in Yucca Valley off Winters Road.   
"Safwan Border," (2013). Oil on canvas.
"Safwan Border," (2013). Oil on canvas.

For more information about the artist visit here.

"34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W" is open to the public through the end of summer or until its contents have been removed by the area's wildlife.

Directions to the installation:
From the 29 Palms Highway, head north down Old Woman Springs Rd. (247), right on Buena Vista Drive, left on Avalon Avenue, and then left on Winters Rd.

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