Newly-painted desert offers inspiration to artistic L.A. expat

Lab chronicled local social conditions before moving to Palm Desert

If Joshua Tree in the High Desert is “blooming” with L.A.-connected actors, screenwriters and artists, as a recent New York Times piece attests, farther south in Palm Springs and the surrounding communities of Palm Desert, Cathedral City, etc., the historic Hollywood/Low Desert connection has always been solid, if less creatively fertile. In the old days, people came to P.S. to stop creating, and to start kicking back in second homes for fun and games, best exemplified by the Rat Pack’s hijinks of yore.

Think of the desert as workplace instead of refuge, and you come to understand painter Walter Lab’s personal trek east. Formerly ensconced in the raucous and renowned downtown L.A. art scene of the ’80s and ’90s, Lab split for Palm Desert eight years ago and hasn’t looked back, but rather out across the desert vistas for what Lab describes as “a contemplative almost monastic place to work out ideas.”

Unlike Joshua Tree, which has developed into a rather cool little artists colony, Lab says, “There’s really not that much of a creative community” in P.D., and he cites the Buschlen Mowatt Gallery as “maybe the only place around that has real art a lot of the time, if not all of the time.”

But that’s OK with Lab, who has decidedly mixed feelings about the pros of L.A.’s art scene, describing the city as “a tool for observation and reflection that motivated my most productive and destructive selves.”

He also laments that while the downtown L.A. scene “made a pretty substantial impact” on New York, it never really changed the L.A. artists’ role, in his view, as simply “the mirror” of the dominant Big Apple art community.

“While ’80s L.A. produced artists who have become major figures in American cultural history, like Mike Kelly, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, plenty of hard-working, thoughtful artists haven’t received enough attention, like Victor Henderson, Elizabeth Garrison, Katie Crowe, Doug Henry, Gary Lloyd, Cam Slocum and Nick Tagert.”

Lab’s efforts on behalf of L.A. artists included co-directing the Gallery by the Water for five years with Slocum. The gap between Lab’s creative mission and the prevailing apolitical-to-conservative zeitgeist of the ’80s art scene shows best in his epic “Nomadic Architecture” series, more than 40 giant canvases depicting the downtown L.A. homeless community’s attempts at self-created housing — wall-size paintings of rickety lean-tos and pallet-built shacks rendered in Lab’s photo-realistic, yet poetic style.

Lab sees his painting in the ’80s and ’90s as “the assertion of poetics and journalism,” but the desert life hasn’t dulled his urge for reportage of “culture as an ensemble of means.” He still talks of his current work as “a comeback or a come-along or a come-around or a come-behold.”

Today, reports Lab, “I’m still largely motivated along those same lines. I’m doing my best to discuss some of the less-noticed parts of the culture,” and he’s doing that in a hot, dusty corner of Southern California that is becoming a little more noticed with the presence of artists like Lab.

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