High Art in the High Desert

Western Lust by Eric Nash. Photo courtesy of Compound YV.

Compound Yucca Valley makes a show of the West with an edgy exhibition by artist Eric Nash.

Written by Jenn Thornton

Thanks to films and hard-boiled fiction, many of us have come to think of the high deserts of the American West, and of Southern California, in particular, with a kind of lonely, half-abandoned affection—a terrain marked by dusty flats, dim bars and blinking motel signs. How we see it is one thing. How we view it, well, that’s another. In the town of Yucca Valley—the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park and located near Pioneertown, the site of this March’s John Wayne Grit Series Half-Marathon and 10K—that is the purview of contemporary art space Compound Yucca Valley.

Opened in 2018 by Lara Wilson and her partner Michael Townsend, Compound YV became a gallery “due to the presence and interest of so many visual artists in the area,” says Wilson. Sound and visual artist Caroline Partamian joined the team in 2020, helping build and retain the gallery’s identity through the pandemic via online shows and events. While the venue’s desert setting does not define how it operates, “I think most of the artists who come in are inspired by it in one way or another,” Wilson confesses.

That includes Eric Nash. The California artist’s solo exhibition “Western Lust” is showing at Compound YV through March 26. Working in charcoal and oil, his realistic work focuses on symbols and scenes inspired by Los Angeles and the California desert, a place where John Wayne not only shot many films in his long film career, but also enjoyed as a private citizen. For Nash, the West is, as he describes it, “a place without labels and restrictions.” A very good place to be if seeking autonomy as an artist. “California and The West is my ground,” Nash says in a statement about the exhibit. “A place where the mundane and spectacular live side by side against ever present mythological themes of hope, life and death. A dark and sunny place—so very dangerous, sexy and romantic. I admit it. I have western lust.” Many of Nash’s typographical overlays and studies of signs “often seem vintage or a bit eerie, but they’re taken right from our town” says Wilson. Including “The Desert View Motel,” which is only a few miles from the gallery.

Desert View Motel by Eric Nash. Photo courtesy of Compound YV.

One is forgiven for finding the tone of the show to be faintly film noir. “That’s an interesting way to put it!” Wilson says. Beyond the fact that Nash works prominently in charcoal, creating works in black and white, “His symbols—skull, raven, moon, abandoned illuminated gas station—do feel like they could be part of a specific film or narrative,” she adds. “The work definitely has a cinematic feel to it.” Hanging the exhibit, therefore, needed to be meticulous to match the quality of the work. “Eric requested that his ‘High Desert Day Moon’ oil painting be placed high, just as it always is in the sky. And we put his piece, ‘End,’ at the far end of the show, almost as if it is a title card in a film that says ‘Fin,’” Wilson explains.

With “Western Lust” and the gallery’s other exhibits and events, Compound YV is a desert rose in bloom. “At Compound, we do our best to facilitate a space where people can come together, share their ideas, and appreciate others’ perspectives. Rather than be known as a strictly ‘desert’ studio, my hope would be that any artist from any background could come in and picture themselves here.”

Desert by Eric Nash. Photo courtesy of Compound YV.